A passion for rugby is not the only things that unites Japan & SA

Ties between Japan and SA have a rich and varied history, including the recent influx of SA players that is reconfiguring the face of Japanese rugby, writes Sean O'Toole

18 August 2019 - 00:13 By sean o'toole
Pieter 'Lappies' Labuschagne of the Japanese rugby team Sunwolves signing autographs last year in Tokyo.
Pieter 'Lappies' Labuschagne of the Japanese rugby team Sunwolves signing autographs last year in Tokyo.
Image: Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

A word to the wise: if you're visiting Japan in September for the Rugby World Cup, don't discuss the 1995 final with a New Zealander in a surf bar. It'll end badly - as it did for me.

It was 1999, the second year of my life as a human tape recorder (read: teacher of English) in the provincial port city of Tokushima. I was sending off a visiting friend at a Hawaiian-themed bar when we met a rusticated Kiwi brawler signed to Tokushima Vortis, an unremarkable professional rugby team owned by a pharmaceutical company.

Much like the Brazilian footballers and leggy Russian dancers one occasionally saw around town, also the silver-tongued Americans and Brits, this Kiwi was selling a craft, his rugby prowess, in exchange for a handsome pay cheque. He offered a withering appraisal of his country-bumpkin teammates: too small, always wanting.

The turnaround in Japanese rugby, heralded by the launch of its 12-team Top League in 2003 and stunning defeat over SA in 2015, was still the stuff of dreams.

The red lights started flashing when the Kiwi mentioned that he hadn't spoken to his dad since 1995 - when, as he explained, New Zealand's rugby squad was "poisoned" before the big final. Things devolved from there. Blue drinks were spilt. Cocktail umbrellas went flying. A barman cowered.

Foreign rugby players living in Japan have a habit of coming undone. Partly it has to do with their inelegant negotiation of the country's boisterous drinking culture, which in most cities occurs in quarantined districts euphemistically referred to as the mizu shobai - literally "water trade" but evocative of an older "floating world" devoted to sensual pleasure.

Last year, former Wallabies captain George Smith was fired by his Top League team, Suntory Sungoliath, after he roughed up a 58-year-old taxi driver pursuing him for absconding on a taxi fare. He was drunk and later claimed no memory of the event.

In June, Kiwi winger Steven Yates, who plays for former Springbok coach Jake White's Toyota Verblitz, was arrested on suspicion of possessing cocaine.

The current influx of SA players to Japan, lured by the prospect of higher earnings and off-season competitive play, may well see these headlines repeat themselves. After all, over-the-top behaviour is a SA export commodity.

In 1999, when I met the angry Kiwi, Japan was still an exotic destination for SA rugby players. A decade later, as the Top League gained form, only four rugby players had ventured east to play. By 2017 it had jumped to 40 - and continues growing.

Former Bulls coach Frans Ludeke, now in his third season with Kubota Spears, has pieced together a squad that includes six South Africans, among them Jean Droste, Lappies Labuschagne and Duane Vermeulen.

"The financial factor is massive," former Sharks coach Gary Gold told SA Rugby magazine last year. But money isn't the only motivating factor. Japan has been a "lifeline" for SA rugby, offering players off-season match time and pay without disqualifying them from Super Rugby.

Japan has been a 'lifeline' for SA rugby, offering players off-season match time and pay without disqualifying them from Super Rugby

"It's pointless moving for money or life experience alone," said former Springbok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez earlier this year. Du Preez selected Suntory Sungoliath because of the gains he recognised playing under coach Eddie Jones.

The influx of South Africans to Japan is already reconfiguring the public face of rugby in that country. The Japanese national side that trounced Tonga earlier this month included Brits-born utility forward Wimpie van der Walt in its line-up.

Van der Walt, who signed to NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes in 2013, is eligible for the national team because of World Rugby's three-year residency law.

Rugby still lags behind baseball and soccer in popularity, but the visibility and impact of star foreign players can have a talismanic effect. Two decades ago, teenagers at the working-class school I taught at frequently asked if I knew Mike Bernardo.

"Beru-chan," as the 1.93m-tall Cape Town kickboxer was affectionately known, made a name for himself in K1, a local blood sport combing elements of kickboxing, karate and taekwondo.

Coached by veteran boxing trainer Steve Kalakoda, also from Cape Town, Bernardo's pluck resonated with the thuggish kids of absent sea captains and single moms.


One of the clichés I had travelled to Japan with was of an affluent and ascetic nation devoted to higher artistic and spiritual pursuits. Seeing a dishevelled student head-butt a male teacher on my first day at work put paid to the burnished image of cultivation and restraint that Japan likes to export. The country is as complicated as elsewhere.

Some of these complications are teased out by the long history of economic and cultural exchange between the two countries.

A decade before he established himself as "merchant and commander" to the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck travelled to Nagasaki on a Dutch trade mission. Later, in his application for the job at the Cape, he identified the sale of animal hides to Japan as a lucrative possibility.

Japan only took an active interest in SA after it was forced out of its self-imposed isolation by US warships in 1853.

The restoration of imperial rule in 1868 marked the start of Japan's helter-skelter modernisation, which included the need for better military technology.

The outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899 was, among other things, a showcase of new military hardware and fighting techniques. The Times of London in 1900 reported that the Japanese "watch this war with rapt interest". Rival papers ran partisan coverage.

Japan famously continued trading with SA, even after official UN censure of apartheid and the initiation of various boycotts in the 1960s

Wine and wool formed SA's earliest exports to Japan, but as the country's imperial and later post-war corporate ambitions grew, so too its need for raw materials - whatever the ethical transgressions. Japan famously continued trading with SA, even after official UN censure of apartheid and the initiation of various boycotts in the 1960s.

In 2002, historian Masako Osada broached Japanese silence around this subject with the publication of Sanctions and Honorary Whites. Her book offers a nuanced analysis of the economic and geopolitical reasons underpinning Japan's alliance with SA during the cruel twilight of white minority rule.

The book's title refers to an unofficial race exemption offered to the Japanese by apartheid authorities.

Within Japan, grass-roots activism against apartheid in the 1960s saw campaigners initiate boycotts as well as hold protests in front of the SA consulate in Tokyo.

In 2017, an exhibition at Tokyo's Rikkyo University showcased newsletters, photos and other records of this long-term campaign.

Akinobu Numajiri, a professor of history at Rikkyo, described the material as proof of resistance "at a time when the Japanese government and corporations prioritised economic benefits over the human rights of South Africans".

But SA-Japan relations are not reducible to war, trade and failed empires, to loosely quote the Polokwane-born writer William Plomer who lived in Japan for three years from 1926.

In his 1943 autobiography, Double Lives, Plomer, who later edited James Bond creator Ian Fleming, fondly recalled his time in Japan.

"Civilisation has many dialects but speaks one language, and its Japanese voice will always be present to my ear, like the pure and liquid notes of the bamboo flute in those tropical evenings on the Indian Ocean when I heard it for the first time, speaking of things far more important than war, trade and empires - of unworldliness, lucidity and love."

Plomer is part of a diverse grouping of South Africans who discovered a clearer
sense of purpose through their exchanges with Japan. Abdullah Ibrahim is perhaps the most famous.

Abdullah Ibrahim practising karate in Denmark in 1974.
Abdullah Ibrahim practising karate in Denmark in 1974.
Image: Ib Skovgaard/Getty Images

A black-belt expert in karate, the celebrated jazz pianist's new album, The Balance, includes a work devoted to his martial-arts mentor, Yukio Tonegawa.

In interviews Ibrahim has likened the hours spent working with Tonegawa to playing piano. Each set of disciplines represents a search for transcendence.

Under apartheid, this quality was perceived as seditious.

In October 1965, the US-based Black Belt Times reported that then minister of home affairs, Jan de Klerk, threatened to sanction a visiting delegation of Japanese karate experts if they gained any publicity.

A Cape Town legislator also called for government control of karate and judo books.

Karate impresario Sebastian Hawkins highlighted the urgent stakes: "What do you think would happen if 20,000 Bantus learnt karate? They could have this country in chaos overnight." Transcendence indeed.

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