The failed kamikaze pilot who gave lift-off to Japan’s rugby revolution
Hall of Fame gives nod to enigmatic Shiggy Konno after towering efforts led to this World Cup, writes Richard Bath in Tokyo
Last week, to little fanfare, this year’s batch of inductees to the International Rugby Hall of Fame was announced ahead of the World Rugby Awards on the eve of next month’s World Cup final. So far so routine, until you look down the list of the six men. Four were distinguished players, including All Black record-breaker Richie Mccaw and legendary Springbok man mountain Os du Randt, and the fifth was World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry. And then there was Shiggy Konno.
Precious few people outside Japan have heard of Shigeru “Shiggy” Konno, and he was not even a household name in the Land of the Rising Sun.
But to those of us who knew this urbane eccentric before he died in 2007 aged 84, Konno was a towering figure despite his diminutive size. More importantly, he was the benign dictator who did so much for Japanese rugby that it is no exaggeration to say that it is highly unlikely that this World Cup would have been staged in Japan were it not for his input.
I met Shiggy many times, and he was a disarming man. Very few Japanese speak fluent English, but thanks to being sent to Rokeby prep school in Kingston-uponthames he had a cut-glass English accent and would often start sentences with the words: “Now, my dear boy …” But if he came across as laid-back and devil-maycare, he was anything but. Konno’s insouciant, erudite exterior masked a steely strength of character which led John Mason, a former rugby correspondent for this paper, once to dub him “the biggest small man I know”.
His mix of outward humour and inner iron resolve was perfectly illustrated by Konno’s favourite party trick, invariably told from a plush armchair at his haunt, London’s exclusive East India Club: the story of how he became Japan’s most famous failed kamikaze pilot.
He would laugh all the way through the story, once telling an interviewer: “The only reason I am still alive is that I wasn’t a very good pilot. That’s why my mission was to be the very last. Either that, or they didn’t want to damage the plane. My time for take-off was in early September, 1945. Fortunately, the war ended in August. If I’d been a good pilot, I wouldn’t have been around to talk about it.”
The truth, as with Konno’s resolute championing of amateur values, was somewhat different. Aged 21, he entered the Pacific theatre in the Second World War as a pilot flying mostly Mitsubishi light bombers and undertook several dangerous missions before, at the age of 22, volunteering to join a kamikaze squadron.
His account of the hardships he faced in training at the southern tip of Japan was enough to make you wince, but eventually his shot at martyrdom arrived when he was informed on his 23rd birthday, July 7, 1945, that, despite being a desperately poor pilot – “Hit an American battleship? I couldn’t hit America” – his final mission was imminent. He put his affairs in order, writing a farewell letter to his parents enclosing his will, collected the ceremonial headband known as a hachimaki, and immediately drank the bottle of sake he was supposed to reserve for the morning of his mission.
When Enola Gay razed first Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, Konno’s self-imposed death sentence was commuted. His final mission had been slated for early August, but was put back a month because of bad weather; so when Japan surrendered on Aug 15, Konno survived and rugby’s history in his country would change forever. Not that it seemed like it at the time, the youngster taking himself off to a Jodo Buddhist monastery to atone for his shame at not taking off in time.
Entertainingly, given that the man himself had no truck with such euphemisms, the World Rugby Hall of Fame refers to this period as one in which Konno “was deprived of an international career because of World War Two, in which he served as a pilot”.
After learning rugby during his early schooling in London, Konno had been a star second row and prop at Doshisha University before joining the Japanese air force, and resumed his rugby career after the war. But his life changed in 1952 when he was asked to be the liaison officer for the visit of Oxford University that year. It sparked an interest in rugby administration that was to last a lifetime.
He was Japan’s national team manager on all overseas tours from 1963-90 and at the 1987 and 1991 World Cups, and was the country’s representative on the International Rugby Football Board.
Konno revolutionised Japanese rugby. If he was outwardly implacable in his opposition to the game turning professional, he effectively created a quasi-professional game in Japan, where company teams such as Kobe Steel basically employed players. Not only did Konno champion that structure, he actively built pan-asian ties – particularly with Hong Kong and regional rugby
‘The only reason I am still alive is that I wasn’t a very good pilot’
rivals South Korea, where he fostered structured domestic leagues – and encouraged universities to tour Japan.
He also understood that overseas expertise was the key to raising Japanese playing standards, and sought to bring elite players and coaches to Japan.
Such was his impact that by the time the game went professional in 1995, Japan already had what was effectively a professional league. The national team had also started fielding overseas players – former Wallaby wing Ian Williams was the first in 1993 – and such was Konno’s impact that in 1985 the Queen awarded him an honorary OBE for services to the game and for improving Anglo-japanese relations.
Konno almost single-handedly dragged Japanese rugby out of the dark ages.
Even though he was at the helm during some testing times, such as when Japan were beaten 145-17 by New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup, he never lost faith. The days when they vied with Korea for regional dominance are long gone: Japan have now beaten South Africa, fielded a competitive Super Rugby team, and this season a whole raft of top coaches and 45 Super Rugby players – many of them top names appearing at this World Cup – are moving to Japan to play professionally. And they have hosted a World Cup. Shiggy would have been proud.