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’
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