- Mr. Hirose, you started playing rugby at Suita Rugby School when you were just five years old.
Yes, I was born and raised in Osaka, where rugby is quite popular, and many people start playing around that age. It was actually my parents' idea to get me involved in team sports. When I was little, I didn't like rugby much, and since I joined the team in the fall, it was hard for me to fit into a community that had already been playing together for months. But the other kids were all nice to me, and there was this team policy of "enjoying rugby," so I gradually started to see how much fun it could be. Even so, I only got to play rugby at Suita Rugby School on Sundays once I became an elementary school student. The rest of the week, I would always play soccer with my friends from school. But when I went to junior high school, for some reason, I decided to join the rugby club instead of soccer, even though most of my friends chose soccer instead. By that time, I must have figured out that I was actually fascinated with rugby. Throughout junior high, I kept going to rugby school on the weekends, which meant I was living and breathing rugby seven days a week.
- Was it difficult for you to play rugby and keep up with your studies?
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I thought that I only needed to do the bare minimum amount of school work, but at some point, I realized that I needed to buckle down and work harder on my studies. Looking back, I think it was because I had my hopes set on getting into Osaka Prefectural Kitano High School, a rugby powerhouse with a robust academic program. It was also my grandfather's alma mater, so I slowly started dreaming of going there. And I ended up enjoying my time playing rugby there. I think the school tradition of thinking critically and being proactive may have suited me. I had the opportunity to be team captain and compete in high school rugby at the national level.
-You went on to Keio University and became captain of the Rugby Football Club.
Actually, I originally wanted to go to Waseda University because they had a great rugby team, and I liked the way they played. But one day, I got a call from Keio coach Akio Ueda from out of the blue, which really surprised me. He continued to call and invite me to build a strong team together, and I was impressed by his enthusiasm. The Keio Rugby Football Club was celebrating its 100th anniversary at the time, so I felt that it was a perfect opportunity for the team to become stronger and stronger. Suddenly I felt myself being drawn more and more to Keio. That same year—my last year in high school—Keio won the All-Japan University Rugby Championship for the third time ever. The following year, we didn't make it to the championship, but we did win the Kanto University League Division title.
- As a student, you studied at the Faculty of Science and Technology. Were you good at math and science?
I've been good at math since I was a kid. I liked the fact that if you calculate something correctly, you will always find the right answer. Both the Faculty of Science and Technology and the rugby pitch were at Hiyoshi, so it was easy to balance practice and academics. I also made a lot of friends outside of rugby and enjoyed life as a typical college student. My lab dealt with vibration engineering, and I was engaged in research on contact between overhead train lines and electric current collectors. I even thought about going on to graduate school to continue my research.
- You ended up getting a job at Toshiba, which has a strong rugby union team in the Top League.
Well, we would often go train together with the Toshiba rugby team. There was always a great vibe there, so I thought it would be fun to play with them. Their individualistic style of rugby also resonated with me and was very different from the way Keio played. But when I first joined Toshiba, my plays didn't always work, which was frustrating. Looking back, I think I didn't have the skills and the mindset to compete at the Top League level.
- Even so, you eventually became captain and led the team to victory.
In my first season as captain, I tried too hard to imitate the style of my predecessor, Teppei Tomioka, and the whole team dynamic was a bit awkward for it. So, in my second year, I decided to just be myself. I listened to other players' ideas and worked on team building. As a result, I think that the game became much more fun for everyone involved, myself included, which led to our championship victory in the Top League that year. Unlike when I was a student, the Top League is full of highly skilled players, international players, and players with longer careers than me. A captain's job isn't just about pulling the team forward. It's about really understanding each player and convincing them to do what's best for the team. I realized that our coach might have chosen me as captain because of my ability to consider others and my surroundings.
- At Toshiba, it seems you emphasized team building and what it means to be a captain. You headed up a mentor system that paired veterans with rookies and the Top League captain conference (now called the "leader conference").
The mentor system was a way for veteran mentors to get to know younger players and bring out the voices of young players who might otherwise be too intimidated to speak up. I think this helped create a more open team. My predecessor, Teppei Tomioka, was the one who started the captain conference. The conference brought together the captains of all 14 top league teams at the time to share information between the teams and discuss steps to further boost rugby in Japan.
- During your time at Toshiba, you were also selected for the Japanese national team.
Representing your country through sports is definitely an exceptional experience. After all, I have to shoulder the expectations of the Japanese people as I compete, so it's a unique feeling that you can't experience anywhere else.
- It was also controversial that Eddie Jones, who became head coach for the national team in 2012, tapped you to be captain because, at the time, you'd had a five-year absence from the Japanese national team. He is reported to have said that you were the best captain he had ever met.
Hirose: Actually, I was probably the most surprised. [laughs] Coach Eddie inspired the team to create our own style—the "Japan Way," he called it—recognizing that we wouldn't be able to win if we simply repeated the same plays as past Japanese national teams. And he was right. We had just assumed that we would lose to the stronger rugby teams. As captain, I faced the challenge of conveying our coach's intense feelings to the rest of the players. Eddie was the toughest coach I've ever met, and I had a really hard time doing my job. But looking back, that experience taught me a lot about rugby. He really was a great coach.
- It was exciting for Japanese rugby fans to see you win a well-deserved victory in a test match against a strong team like Wales. I think that victory foreshadowed another moving triumph against South Africa two years later at the Rugby World Cup 2015.
I think so, too. Even after I was replaced as captain by Michael Leitch, the Japanese national team only continued to get stronger. Despite not making the field in the Rugby World Cup 2015, I was always thinking about what I could do to motivate the other players. I remember sending them videos to cheer them on.
- Despite your track record as both player and captain, you changed gears after retiring in 2016. Instead of going into coaching, you chose to join the business world and earned your MBA.
I had plenty of opportunities to talk with businesspeople during my time as a professional athlete, and I knew that I had to understand how society worked, no matter what I did after my rugby career was over. I wanted another challenge, a chance to thrive under pressure. I also felt a strong desire to work on a business of my own. After retiring from rugby, I obtained my MBA from the Graduate School of Business at the Business BreakThrough University. In the spring of 2019, I founded HiRAKU Co., Ltd., which provides services focused on sports outreach. That year Japan hosted the Rugby World Cup, where I focused on media activities and worked as a commentator and ambassador.
- Your commentary at the Rugby World Cup was well received for its accessibility. Even people new to the sport found it easy to understand.
Thank you so much. I tried to speak in a way that would be easy to understand for both diehard fans and newcomers introduced to the game through the World Cup. I also worked on a project called "ScrumUnison" to entertain rugby fans by singing national anthems and rugby songs from all over the world. It was a ton of fun to do and put a smile on everyone's face.
- What does the future of HiRAKU Co., Ltd. look like?
I would first like to take what I learned from my time as a rugby captain to build a platform and create content dedicated to leadership education. I'd also like to tie that into business leader education. In addition, we have plans for a business that exposes children to a variety of sports experiences as well as a business for health and preventive medicine. These are some of the business ideas we are working on getting off the ground.
- Could you say a few final words to current students?
When I first entered university, I felt lost and confused surrounded by so many smart students around me. It was so different from the environment where I grew up. But I soon realized that one of the joys of college is that it is a place where people from different backgrounds can interact with each other and express their individuality. I am reminded of Fukuzawa-sensei's ideals of independence and self-respect (dokuritsu-jison). I hope that current students will take advantage of the environment at Keio to follow through with their dreams and ambitions without ever cowering in the face of fear. Recently I have come back to school myself, studying athlete leadership at the Keio University Graduate School of System Design and Management (SDM) since last spring. I hope to join you, my fellow classmates, in challenging myself to achieve my ideals.
- Thank you for your time.
CEO, HiRAKU Co., Ltd.
Toshiaki Hirose graduated from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Faculty of Science and Technology in 2005. He started playing rugby at the age of 5 and attended the prestigious Kitano High School in Osaka Prefecture before coming to Keio University, where he was captain of the rugby team. After graduating from university, he landed a position at Toshiba Corporation, where he was a player and captain for Toshiba Brave Lupus in Japan's Top League. He was later selected for the Japanese national team. After retiring from rugby, he obtained his MBA from the Graduate School of Business Administration, Business BreakThrough University. He founded HiRAKU Co., Ltd. in March 2019 and that same year contributed to the success of the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan as a commentator and ambassador. He also made headlines appearing in the 2019 sports drama No Side Game.
*This article originally appeared in the 2020 summer edition (No. 307) of Juku.
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing.