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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Total Rugby -

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.

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