Features Australia

Letter from Japan

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

With ubiquitous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples proclaiming the nationwide universality of religious belief, Japan is the ideal location for the World Cup of the game they play in heaven – and when the typhoon struck, in hell. Shinto, by far the dominant religion is, like rugby, action-centred with a multitude of gods where rituals connect believers with Japan’s ancient roots and heroes – much like a football club reunion night. Naturally, there is a god for rugby. Within a forest in the ancient capital Kyoto, the most traditional of Japanese cities, there is a small Shinto Sawatasha shrine dedicated to Kantama-no-Mikoto, the god of ball games – but especially rugby. Worshippers write their prayers on wooden plaques shaped like rugby balls, throw their gifts into a gold rugby ball, and a rugby ball is carved into a large monumental stone. According to London’s Times newspaper, the 77-year-old former Japanese international (and World Rugby Hall of Famer) Yoshihiro Sakata reckons that ‘The more people that come here and pray, the more the power of the god increases. And these days so many people come here’. So now we know the secret behind the magnificent wins by Japan, previously dismissed as a rugby minnow, over powerhouses Ireland and Scotland, to top its pool undefeated and progress to the quarter-finals for the first time. It took the physical toughness of South Africa eventually to end the dream run of the entertaining, quick handling and fleet-of-foot Japanese.

But Australia did not heed this Shinto message. Minus Israel Folau (and therefore lacking God), the Wallabies, (or Wobblees/Wannabees) were defeated by an uninspiring Wales XV, Then, after scraping through to the quarter-finals by coming second in the competition’s weakest pool, they became the Wallop-ees to a dominating England. Apart from rugby union’s sacking of Folau, Australia’s best player, for quoting the Bible’s threats of hell (allegedly offending people who don’t believe in hell anyway) our sports administrators have successfully contributed to a series of depressing Australian international performances; cricket’s bosses ensured twelve horror months of international losses by over-reacting to the sandpaper saga and sacking Australia’s captain and vice-captain, whose eventual return to competition brought immediate victories. And in women’s football, the still unexplained (and unjustified?) sacking of the coach shortly before the World Cup contributed to the Matildas’ disappointing exit. And now, in a curious ‘reward’ for Japan’s brilliant emergence as a front-rank rugby nation in reaching the final rounds of the World Cup in front of huge, enthusiastic crowds of supporters (and millions of television viewers), southern hemisphere rugby administrators are sacking the rapidly improving Japanese team, the Sunwolves, from the Super Rugby competition between XVs from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina. Like the multi-millionaire-supported Perth side that attracted good crowds and was a key to promoting the game in WA, so Japan and its millions of fans and corporate sponsorship have been given the chop in another skilful display by sports administrators.

In Sapporo, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido (for Australia’s first World Cup game against Fiji), I added my name to the ten million-odd petition demanding the Russians give back to Japan the four small offshore islands they nicked at the end of World War II. It is due to the continuing dispute over these that Japan and the USSR (replaced by Russia) are still formally at war – no peace treaty has been signed – three quarters of a century after Japan unconditionally surrendered in August, 1945. Last year, serious negotiations aimed at eventually finalising a peace treaty resumed between President Putin and Prime Minister Abe, and are continuing at officials level.

Until the belated Soviet declaration of war on Japan on August 8, just seven days before Emperor Hirohito’s August 15 surrender, the USSR had stood by its 1941 non-aggression pact, even supplying Japan with oil under an international treaty. The Soviet attack resulted not only in a Russian territorial get-square over its 1905 war losses to Japan, but also in the curious claim that Japan’s surrender resulted not from the atom bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on the 9th, but to the Russian invasion of Manchuria on the same day. It was due ‘more to the swift and devastating Soviet victories, which destroyed the Japanese strategy of protecting the home islands by fending off an allied invasion from the south which left virtually no spare troops to counter a Soviet threat from the north’. This is a central element of the anti-American claim that there was no strategic benefit in the atomic massacres of innocent civilians, with the real objective being to warn the Russians that the US had The Bomb, rather than to win the war.

Travelling by Bullet Train to Tokyo, for Australia’s next game, took five hours – much of it in tunnels that limited the time to gawk at the rapidly passing countryside. Japan must have more tunnels as a proportion of rail track than even Switzerland. A 54-kilometre tunnel linking Hokkaido with Honshu, 100 metres under the sea bed, is its biggest. And while rustic Hokkaido provided glimpses of rural Japan, train windows on Honshu framed wall-to-wall factories, seas of red and white painted steel transmission towers, elevated roadways and huge apartment buildings. Whenever I passed Mt Fuji it was covered in fog. I saw not one mosque; Japan takes no refugees.

There is a natural affinity between rugby world cups and beer. That relationship has prospered (as have the breweries) during the current World Cup. Despite the popular image, it’s not sake but beer that has always been Japan’s top drink, accounting for two-thirds of the considerable volume of local alcohol consumption. With Australia’s World Cup campaign starting in Sapporo the excellent local brew attracted many Australian consumers – but not at the games; at all world cup venues Holland’s Heineken had exclusive marketing rights in a blow to the hopes of local brands like Sapporo, Asahi, Suntory and Kirin (which owns several Australian brands) to build on their already sizeable export markets. Fortunately, there ended up being no substance to fears that supply may not be able to meet the urgent and thirsty demands of visiting rugby supporters.

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