This year Japan hosts Asia's first-ever Rugby World Cup, which kicks off September 20, but this is not the first time the coveted Webb Ellis Cup has come to Tokyo. Just four years ago, the tournament trophy traveled to Keio University, the birthplace of rugby in Japan, ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. During the visit, members of the Keio Rugby Football Club met a contingent of tournament organizers as well as former members of the Wales national rugby union team at Shimoda Field on Hiyoshi Campus. Today, we take a brief look at the history of the Keio Rugby Football Club and its lasting impact on the development of the sport throughout Japan.
It all started in the fall of 1899, when Edward Bramwell Clarke, an English instructor at the Keio Department of Economics, hoping to make the most of the pleasant autumn weather, decided to teach his students how to play rugby. Enlisting the help of fellow Cambridge University alumni Ginnosuke Tanaka as coach and interpreter, the two set about teaching their students how to play the game.
Keio’s first inter-club match took place two years later, in 1901, when they took on a team of expatriates from the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club (YC&AC), suffering a staggering defeat of 35–5. Not only were there marked differences in physical build and athletic experience between the teams, but Keio was further handicapped by the fact that only two of its athletes, Clarke and Tanaka, were equipped with proper rugby cleats. It is rumored that a chagrined Clarke yelled out for his Japanese teammates to "employ judo" during the match, a martial art noted for using an opponent's strength to one's advantage. Soon after, with Clarke as manager, the club was officially added to the Keio University Athletic League (now the Keio University Athletic Association) as the Keio University Rugby Football Club. In 1908, seven years after their first major loss, Keio used an original formation for forwards, called the "seven system," to exact revenge over YC&AC with a historic 12–0 victory.
Nothing symbolizes rugby at Keio like its bright black and yellow jerseys. The club’s alumni association, Kokkokai (lit. black-yellow association), even named themselves after the design. The black and yellow jersey is said to have been designed by 1907 graduate Kenzaburo Okamoto (later professor at the Department of Literature) and was reportedly inspired by Princeton University’s tiger-themed orange and black school colors. The club’s popularity soared after switching from a simple all-black design to the new black and yellow jersey, and the number of sign-ups doubled. It appears that the design found mass appeal with the fashion sense of Keio students at the time.
The very first Keio-Waseda Rugby Game was held on November 23, 1922, at the Keio University Tsunamachi Field, where Keio won 14–0. The Jijishinpo newspaper at the time called it an "exciting match" with Waseda putting up a good fight. In fact, the match took place amid a 19-year suspension of the Keio-Waseda Baseball Games that lasted from 1906 to 1925, the penalty for riotous cheering that broke out among spectators at games in 1906. Despite these tensions, alumni from both schools came together under the auspices of the All Japan Rugby Association (A.J.R.A.) to host events and make the first Keio-Waseda Rugby Games a reality. It seems a shared love of the game united athletes beyond any one team, a display of the "no side"(*1) camaraderie that has long defined rugby in Japan.
*1 The concept of "no-side" is drawn from the early history of the game when the referee would call "No Side" to signify the end of the match and indicate that no side had possession of the ball. The concept of "no-side" developed in Japanese rugby to represent the mutual respect, camaraderie, and friendship between all players and fans.
With the 2019 Rugby World Cup fast approaching, this year marks the Keio University Rugby Football Club's 120th anniversary and presents an excellent opportunity for the club to reflect on its contributions to the development of the sport in Japan. Early Keio rugby player Kumazo Tanabe, who invented the "seven system" forward formation that helped earn Keio its first victory, would later go on to become the second chair of the All Japan Rugby Association. The club has been home to numerous other athletes, including Akio Ueda, who played for the national Japanese rugby team and later returned to Keio to serve as coach of the Rugby Football Club, which he twice led to national victory. More recent names include professional athletes like Akihito Yamada, Tsuyoshi Murata, and Daisuke Kurihara.
In 2018, Kyo Furuta became the first student from the School of Medicine to serve as captain of the Keio Rugby Football Club, leading the club to the top 8 at nationals, ultimately losing to arch-rival Waseda in a come-from-behind defeat in overtime at the semi-finals. But despite the disappointing outcome, Furuta will be remembered among Keio rugby fans as a great captain and a tactical five-eighth. His career embodies the Keio University Athletic Association’s motto of bunbu ryodo: excellence in both athletics and academics.
As Japan gears up to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the seeds sown by a single Englishman more than a century ago have finally come to fruition.