Why Ja­panese chil­dren are bang­ing drum for World Cup

Pupils are be­ing given a unique in­sight into the teams, writes Kate Rowan in Ku­mamoto ‘They know ev­ery player’s name and can sing the na­tional an­them’

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Total Rugby -

You may have no­ticed an un­fa­mil­iar back­drop to some of the less high-pro­file games at this World Cup – rhyth­mic bang­ing of drums, pas­sion­ate chant­ing and the chore­ographed wav­ing of hand-held fans.

Lo­cals swept up in rugby fever? A fu­ture gen­er­a­tion of Ja­panese play­ers seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion? Well, not ex­actly. Rather, these young sup­port­ers are part of some­thing much big­ger with the Rugby World Cup 2019 Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gramme dis­tribut­ing 55,000 tick­ets to more than 500 schools through­out Ja­pan.

It is up to each host city whether it takes part and there has been par­tic­u­lar en­thu­si­asm in smaller cities such as Ku­ma­gaya, tra­di­tion­ally Ja­pan’s “rugby town”, as well as the likes of Fukuoka and Ku­mamoto on the south­ern is­land of Kyushu, many miles from the venue for next month’s fi­nal in Yoko­hama. The tick­ets are pur­chased by the lo­cal gov­ern­ment as a way of en­sur­ing that its city cre­ates a unique at­mos­phere, and it is also a mat­ter of pride.

An hour be­fore the kick-off of Ge­or­gia v Uruguay in Ku­ma­gaya last Sun­day, the din was al­most deaf­en­ing. Vol­un­teer To­momi Ya­m­aguchi ex­plained the ap­peal: “Isn’t it won­der­ful? They have sent many lo­cal ele­men­tary school­child­ren here to watch.

“We are small com­pared with Tokyo but we want to show how proud we are that our city is host­ing some­thing the world is watch­ing. The chil­dren know that, and with their teach­ers they make sure that they are the best fans. My grand­son and his friends are here, they know every­thing about the Uruguay team. They know ev­ery player’s name and they can sing the na­tional an­them.”

Was this be­cause the Uruguayans, like Ja­pan’s Brave Blos­soms, were de­vel­op­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for giant-slay­ing and the chil­dren could em­pathise?

“Oh no, they also know all about the Ge­or­gian team, the chil­dren have been pre­par­ing for this match for a long time.”

The scheme has been or­gan­ised with mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion. The chil­dren not only learn about the teams, they re­ceive a com­pre­hen­sive ed­u­ca­tion on rugby’s ori­gins, its his­tory in Ja­pan, as well as an in-depth study of the World Cup and its place in global sport.

Stu­dents’ ed­u­ca­tion about the teams does not merely re­late to play­ers’ names or all-time high­est try-scor­ers. The teach­ers care­fully in­te­grate cul­ture, lan­guage, geog­ra­phy and his­tory lessons around the two na­tions they will watch com­pet­ing. So, ex­pect the chil­dren of Ku­mamoto, who have en­joyed vis­its from the France rugby team, to be well versed in the French Revolution as well as the coloni­sa­tion of Tonga and an un­der­stand­ing of Pa­cific Is­land cul­ture ahead of to­mor­row’s game.

While in­di­vid­ual su­per-fans such as Bak-san – a man who paints his body in the shirt of each in­di­vid­ual team – have emerged, this is about en­thus­ing as many chil­dren as pos­si­ble. Many of the chil­dren have been given the op­por­tu­nity to play tag rugby, the ma­jor­ity pick­ing up the oval ball for the first time.

The Ja­panese are old hands at such pro­grammes, hav­ing put a sim­i­lar one in place first at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and then at the 1972 and 1998 Win­ter Olympics in Sap­poro and Nagano re­spec­tively. When there were fears be­fore the 2002 foot­ball World Cup about whether the lo­cals would take to the game, it was the school­child­ren who livened up the “lesser” group stage matches and for some it brought about a life­long pas­sion for the game.

Aoki Taneka, now an in­ter­preter in Tokyo, went with her school to see Ger­many run riot 8-0 over Saudi Ara­bia in her home city of Sap­poro and it made a last­ing im­pres­sion. “I started to fol­low the Ger­man foot­ball team, I al­ways sup­port them af­ter Ja­pan, and then I watched the J-league on TV, which I never did be­fore. “Be­ing ex­posed to a huge in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ment made me want to see more of the world and that is why I stud­ied lan­guages, in­clud­ing Ger­man,” she said. “I also stud­ied in Mu­nich and I never would have done that if it wasn’t for that ex­pe­ri­ence as a child. I hope these chil­dren will get as much joy from rugby as I did from foot­ball.”

It is a model of en­gag­ing fans which seems to work. Ad­min­is­tra­tors else­where should take note.

At­ten­tive: Young fans watch France v the United States in Fukuoka

Skin in the game: Su­per-fan Back-san has had his body painted in each na­tion’s colours

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