Ja­panese city looks to leave a last­ing im­pact on in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties with next year’s World Cup

Bangkok Post - - RUGBY -

For Fukuoka, host­ing the 2019 Rugby World Cup is the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to build a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the most at­trac­tive sport­ing cities in Asia. Al­though the city has a rich rugby-play­ing tra­di­tion, or­gan­is­ers are re­sort­ing to some cre­ative ways to get lo­cals out to watch games, in­clud­ing in­cor­po­rat­ing a rugby-lov­ing manga char­ac­ter in hopes of draw­ing more new fans to the sport.

The port city on Kyushu’s north­ern coast has long been a gate­way to the rest of Asia, with records show­ing nearby Daza­ifu played a key role in diplo­macy with China and the Korean Penin­sula from at least the sev­enth cen­tury. Fukuoka built its for­tune on trade and to­day is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for tourists from abroad.

Be­cause of this his­tory, the lo­cals are known for their hos­pi­tal­ity to­wards out-of-town­ers, mak­ing it well-suited to host an event that will bring hun­dreds of thou­sands of over­seas spec­ta­tors to the is­land na­tion.

“We want to show­case to the world Fukuoka’s ap­peal as an in­ter­na­tional sport­ing city,” mayor Soichiro Takashima said.

Takashima, a 44-year-old for­mer TV an­chor­man, says part of that ap­peal comes from Level5 Sta­dium, the city’s largest venue for foot­ball, rugby and Amer­i­can foot­ball games.

The 22,500-per­son ca­pac­ity sta­dium will be the venue for three matches — Italy ver­sus a repechage win­ner on Sept 26, France against the United States on Oct 2, and Ire­land against Samoa on Oct 12.

Prepa­ra­tions are al­ready un­der way, with ren­o­va­tions com­pleted in­clud­ing in­stalling new seats with the city’s name in huge let­ters on them and ad­ding a sec­ond large screen be­hind the goal­posts. The sta­dium lights have also been made brighter, and the turf is cur­rently be­ing re­placed.

Fukuoka is no stranger to rugby, pro­duc­ing Ayumu Goro­maru, the full­back who rose to fame for his per­for­mance at the 2015 World Cup, and Hi­gashi Fukuoka High School, an all-male in­sti­tu­tion that has won the na­tional cham­pi­onship an im­pres­sive six times in the last 11 years.

“There are a lot of [rugby] clubs and it’s a good en­vi­ron­ment for kids to get started,” said Kazuhiro Haraguchi, who coaches mid­dle school­ers at the Kusagae Young Rug­gers Club where more than 200 chil­dren train.

Soon af­ter the city was cho­sen among the 12 to host the World Cup, or­gan­is­ers re­alised that the real chal­lenge was get­ting peo­ple who were more used to play­ing the game ex­cited about go­ing to watch it.

“Our goal is to have a full sta­dium, but we still don’t have the level of pub­lic an­tic­i­pa­tion that we want to see,” said Kazuhiro Shi­no­hara, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the lo­cal or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee. “Peo­ple here think that rugby is some­thing you play, not some­thing you watch.”

There are two lo­cal teams that compete in Ja­pan’s Top League, the Coca-Cola Red Sparks and the Mu­nakata Sanix Blues, but nei­ther have any­where near the pop­u­lar­ity of the city’s suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional base­ball team, the Soft­Bank Hawks.

Kinue Yoshimura barely knew any­thing about rugby be­fore be­com­ing a staffer of the or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee, where she wound up be­cause of her job as a pub­lic ser­vant in the city gov­ern­ment, and she knew there were many more like her.

So the 34-year-old de­cided to be­gin a comic strip in hopes of cre­at­ing more rugby fans.

The comics, which are drawn in a sim­ple, doo­dle-like style, star a woman named “Ragu-mura-Ragu-e,” dressed in a gi­ant rugby ball cos­tume. The name is a play on words of the woman’s name.

Like her cre­ator, Ragu-mura has no ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing or watch­ing rugby, but af­ter learn­ing that one of the world’s largest sport­ing events is com­ing to town de­cides she needs to get in­volved. She starts by go­ing to a match and, de­spite not know­ing the rules, im­me­di­ately be­comes hooked be­cause of the im­pres­sive phys­i­cal­ity of the ath­letes.

“I wanted a way to make rugby more ap­proach­able for young women,” Yoshimura said.

The comics, which she says takes her about an hour to il­lus­trate, are pub­lished on the city gov­ern­ment’s web­site once ev­ery two weeks. There are al­ready dozens of them and she jokes that lately she is stretched for con­tent.

“But I plan to keep draw­ing until the World Cup. I still haven’t de­cided what the fi­nale is go­ing to be,” she said.

While the task at hand is fill­ing seats, Shi­no­hara of the lo­cal or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee says the ul­ti­mate goal is to leave a last­ing im­pact on the com­mu­nity.

“And that doesn’t just mean the changes to the sta­dium. We want rugby to be­come more pop­u­lar in Asia as a whole,” he said.

The city is al­ready mak­ing moves on that front. In Oc­to­ber it hosted the in­au­gu­ral Asian Rugby Exchange Fest, a com­pe­ti­tion fea­tur­ing mid­dle school­ers from Bangladesh, Brunei, Ja­pan, Ma­cau, Malaysia, the Philip­pines, Sri Lanka, and Tai­wan.

Shi­no­hara says he wants to make this an an­nual event, hop­ing to see the sport spread past its roots in Europe and the South­ern Hemi­sphere.

“That’s the legacy we want to leave be­hind,” he says.

The Level5 Sta­dium in Fukuoka, one of the venues for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Ren, left, and G are mas­cots for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Ja­pan’s Ayumu Goro­maru kicks a penalty dur­ing the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

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