During the first test at Toyota, French fans were surprised by the number of foreigners believed to be playing in Japan today. The reality is much more complex than that …
The question arises cyclically, when rugby fans around the world talk about the Japanese team: “Why are there only foreigners in this team? » Of the twenty-three players who played Toyota’s first test match, thirteen had foreign surnames. What should we conclude from this? Is the Japanese national team, in fact, a selection of Pacific players based in the Japanese archipelago?
On closer inspection, the reality is more complex and the Brave Blossoms would rather embody a “patchwork” of the eligibility rules enacted by World Rugby. First, on Jamie Joseph’s team, there is a group of six foreigners selected to occupy positions (second line, number 8, first center) where local rugby is traditionally weak and under the “three-year rule on the terrain, ”the South. Africans Wimpie van der Waalt, Jack Cornelsen (second row) and Gerhard van den Heever (winger) or Australian center Dylan Riley and colossal Australian side Ben Gunther (1.92 m and 120 kg) are there to densify a very tender team Generally.
A textbook case, you say? Surely not and on this subject, you will be reminded, for example, that the Irish lined up seven “foreigners” during the 2021 6 Nations Tournament (including CJ Stander, Bundee Akhi, James Lowe, Joey Carbery, Jamison Gibson -Park) when the Scots used fifteen in the same year (including Duhan van der Merwe, Sean Maitland, Hamish Watson) or the three French (Paul Willemse, Virimi Vakatawa and Uini Atonio).
Beyond these players, who reached the middle of their careers in the archipelago because they were banned in their home country, we must add a group of foreigners raised in Japan, such as North Korean Lee Seung- Sin o el Kiwi. Warner Dearns, who has lived with his parents in Japan since he was 8 years old, or even with dual nationality, the most famous being the former Clermontois Kotaro Matsushima, of Japanese mother and South African father.
This group will also develop rapidly due to the dramatic increase in mixed marriages in Japan and the desire of the North Korean community in the country to integrate successfully through rugby, the North Korean institute in ‘ Osaka, for example, has been a regular participant. in the final stages of the Japanese high school championship for several years, an important competition in the archipelago.
The “Japan-Tongan” group.
Finally, in this “patchwork”, there is a group of Pacific players, whether they are Michael Leitch (side, Fiji), Tevita Tatafu (number 8, American Samoa), Faulua Makisi (third line, Tonga), Siosaia. Fifita (extreme, Tonga) or Asaeli Ai Valu (extreme right, Tonga), whose father represented Japan at the 1987 World Cup in New Zealand.
The Tongan clan, more than abundant, is the most interesting here because it is the heir to an “outstretched hand” of the Empire of Japan in the Kingdom of Tonga since 1976 and, as proof of the close ties that still unite the two archipelagos, Emperor Naruhito was also present when the last king of Tonga was crowned.
It is clear that Japan set out, several decades ago, to welcome the children of the islands to their schools to train them, originally, in the art of the abacus (Soroban) and thus offer them a future that l ‘Polynesian archipelago, one of the poorest countries in the world, could not give them.
The first generation of these “Japanese” (Hopoi Taione, Sinali Latu) represented Japan at the first World Cup (1987) and the story has continued since then, contemporary players like the Siosaia Fifita winger or the number 8 Amanaki Mafi who have arrived in the archipelago between 13 and 15 years in the framework of these exchanges between the two countries, whose strongest symbol remains the tens of millions of euros paid by the Japanese government after the tsunami which affected Tonga in January 2022, following the eruption. of the Hunga Tonga volcano.
To tell the truth, this successful integration has led, closer to us, the extension of the offer to young Fijians, including the iconic Michael Leitch, now Japanese by marriage, or the second line Salone Waqa, owner of ‘this weekend in Tokyo, or even Tevita Tatafu (26 years old), this native of American Samoa, a confetti of 77 km² and 45,000 inhabitants. As a teenager, Tatafu joined the Meguro Institute in Tokyo where, very quickly, his name was marked on the shelves of all coaches in the country. A decade later and having mastered school and college rugby, he now plays for Tokyo’s Sungoliath.