For a country where the sport of rugby ranks at best a distant eighth in popularity behind soccer, baseball, judo, sumo, volleyball, basketball, and golf the bid and award of the 2019 Rugby World Cup was a bold move by the World Rugby Organization. Soon after the tournament was awarded Japan’s alleged promises of sharing matches with Singapore and Hong Kong were reneged upon. Part of the appeal of the Japanese bid was a promise of first use of a stadium being constructed for the 2020 Olympics. That promise also dissolved as the stadium is now rumored to not be completed by the Olympics. World Rugby briefly toyed with the idea of moving the World Cup, but quickly decided to stay with Japan. Why? One must wonder.
As a country it is beautiful with a warm, courteous, and welcoming people. As a rugby destination it will struggle to provide the atmosphere World Cup fans have come to expect.
A replacement venue for the Olympic stadium is a relatively small (slightly less that 50,000 seat) second division football stadium in a suburb of Tokyo. The World Cup venue list calls it the Tokyo Stadium, but to Japanese it is know as Ajinomoto Stadium. One of its few claims to fame is it was the first branded stadium in Japan. It was named by a salt company. If there is a pub or bar in the town, I couldn’t find it. There are a few restaurants. The journey now involves making your way through the craziness of Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station to find the private train line that serves the town of Tobitakyu. If you purchased the Japan Rail pass, it won’t work on this line. In fairness the tournament is over a year away, so perhaps plans are or will be made to facilitate travel. For a country renowned for moving 2,000,000 people through one of Tokyo’s train stations in one day moving an extra 50-60 thousand people is probably a small challenge. On a recent visit to the stadium there was no indication that it would, in the not too distant future, be the epicenter of the world’s rugby fans’ attention. Other host cities have put up banners and even dressed up statues in rugby kit, but the rumor is the local football club will have none of that.
In 1999 I went to my first World Cup match, Wales vs Japan. Since then I have attended many. In 2007 I spent 3 weeks in France before going to Cardiff for France’s controversial quarterfinal defeat of New Zealand. In 2011 & 2015 I was in New Zealand and England respectively from opening ceremony through the Final. A large part of the experience was a rugby knowledgeable population that even if you weren’t at a match swarmed fanzones and bars and restaurants to watch whomever was playing. I don’t see that happening in Japan. An Englishman who has lived in Japan for several years told me, “If you want the rugby atmosphere, you are going to have to go to the venue.” In 2007 I went to Toulouse to watch a play-off match for bottom of the pool between Romania and Portugal. The match in a stadium of similar size to Ajinomoto Stadium was sold-out. It was full of French people who wanted to go to a World Cup match. They were singing and drinking and oblivious to a rather tedious match that would decide some unimportant second tier world ranking, but they made the experience thrilling. Will the Japanese turn out for a match like USA v Tonga? It is hard to imagine that happening, but ex-pats in Japan have told me they will. In 2013 only 20,000 people showed up to watch Japan play Wales in a stadium that held 30,000. This same venue is scheduled to host: Italy vs Africa 1 (Namibia probably), Argentina vs Tonga, Georgia vs Fiji, & USA vs Tonga.
Is Japan ready? Yes, in their own style, but this is not a style rugby fans are accustomed to. Recently in Kitakyushu for the HSBC Womens 7s I spoke with some ex-pat journalists about the upcoming World Cup. They told stories about New Zealand tour companies selling packages that include accommodations in Fukuoka for a 7:15 pm match in Oita. Fukuoka is a little over an hour away by fast train. The last train is at 9:45 pm. The stadium is 30 minutes away from the train station. When I assumed extra trains would be put on, the ex-pats laughed, “Not going to happen.”
The powers that control sport in Japan orchestrated the bid for both the World Cup and the Olympics. Were they thinking the World Cup would be a nice little warm-up for the Olympics? And once again the shenanigans have started with ticket sales. I entered the lottery to get the USA package – a ticket for every USA match. I did not win. How many people get in the lottery for a ticket to 4 USA team’s world cup rugby matches in Japan almost two years before those matches are going to happen and do not win? Am I just extremely unlucky or was the fix already in? Now a year and a half ahead, I can go through tour operators and get these tickets at increased prices along with hotels and hospitality I don’t want. Or maybe I do want the hospitality which I imagine will be on the 2 hour bus ride back to Fukuoka.
Japan will be ready, but fans will need to be ready for the Japanese style of readiness.