Rebuilding Tonga through the bonds that built Japanese rugby

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Japan Racing Association

It was an 80-minute match that solidified the bond between the two countries. The 2022 Japan Rugby Charity Match took place in Tokyo on June 11.

The victims of the underwater volcanic eruption in Tonga in January were on the minds of players and fans at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground. Organized to raise funds to help the country rebuild, the match saw the next generation of Japan’s national team, the Emerging Blossoms, beat Tonga Samurai XV, made up of Tongans living in Japan, 31-12.

The crowd of 8,055, meanwhile, cheered without prejudice on both teams.

Long decades of friendship

Tonga Samurai XV Head Coach Sinali Latu addressed the crowd in fluent Japanese:

“Since Tonga was hit by the January 15 volcanic eruption and tsunami, we wanted to do something. We wanted to support our country through rugby. Thank you, Japan, for all you have done for Tonga.

Latu is a rugby legend in both countries. After coming from the Kingdom of Tonga to study at Daito Bunka University in Japan in 1985, he played for Sanyo Electric Co. and the Japanese national team as a steadfast number 8.

Now settled in Japan as a Japanese citizen, Latu started charitable activities immediately upon learning of the disaster in his homeland and rushed to the Japan Rugby Union for help.

“It’s the time of the year when the national league is over and the national team is about to start playing. I thought it would be difficult to get there at first,” Latu said. “But a lot of people understood, and we were able to hold the game.”

“I only feel gratitude,” he added.

This sentiment is reflected in the team uniform. The emblem, which depicts a dove as a symbol of peace and a helmet worn by Japanese samurai, reads “KANSHA” (recognition) next to the team name.

The Japanese word means gratitude, but the message wasn’t just about supporting the victims of the recent disaster. It was also over 40 years of friendship through rugby between the two countries.

Not just rugby

Before rugby, the abacus played a major role in trade between Japan and Tonga. King Tupou IV of Tonga saw the potential of the abacus, which was a cornerstone of Japan’s development, and started a study abroad program in Japan.

In 1981, Nofomuli Taumoefolau became the first foreign student to study in Japan since Tonga, where rugby is the national sport. It is no coincidence that the professor in charge of the study abroad program at Daito Bunka University was the head of the university rugby team.

Taumoefolau played for the Japanese national team in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 and was a great winger.

Head coach Latu, who along with Tonga frontman Samurai Taumoefolau was a key player in the inaugural World Cup, said: “Everything was new to him when Nofomuli first came here to study. Despite the difficulties, he stayed in Japan and paved the way for us.

Today, there are a total of 27 Japanese national team players in Tonga, and they have played 328 games for Japan in international matches. These figures show how much rugby players from the South Pacific islands have contributed to the development of the sport in Japan.

Meanwhile, Latu emphatically said, “A lot of players here today came to Japan as high school and college students. They were raised in Japan.

Since the days of Taumoefolau and others, many Japanese have supported and fought on the pitch with Tongan students and players. From there, an irreplaceable bond developed between the two countries.

From a broad base of support

The letters “KANSHA” were written on the left chest of the players’ uniforms to remember the long friendship.

Feletiliki Mau, who designed the emblem, was also a graduate of Daito Bunka University. He was a powerhouse for the Japanese national team in the 2000s, when the team was not yet strong enough to play on the world stage.

When he was forced to retire due to a nerve injury, he felt a sense of mistrust towards his team. However, he was able to express his gratitude to Japan and his fellow Japanese athletes in the emblem ー and the traditional Tongan war dance “Sipi Tau” ー which he had choreographed for the match.

In Japan, Kochi Prefecture, which hosted the Tonga national team for the 2019 World Cup, again provided a base camp. Mizuno Corporation supported the South Pacific Samurai by providing free team uniforms and clothing.

This charity game was made possible through the combined efforts of various players and officials from both countries. The donations, which mean more than the amount of money raised, will be delivered to their recipients across the Pacific Ocean.

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(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Hiroshi Yoshida

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