Japan’s sports teams have a knack of applying a balm at moments when the population is otherwise occupied by darker thoughts about their country’s susceptibility to natural disasters.
Eight years ago it was the women’s football team, who lifted the World Cup – unexpectedly beating the tournament favourites USA – just weeks after the country had been hit by a deadly earthquake and tsunami.
That feat was achieved on European soil while most of Japan slept. But on Sunday, the tens of thousands of home fans inside Yokohama Stadium were there to live every second of the Brave Blossoms’ 28-21 triumph against Scotland.
“I expected us to win, but now that we’ve actually done it I’m in shock,” said Japan fan Atsushi Moritani. “I’m full of admiration for Horie and Leitch for the way they played tonight. They showed courage, and I hope they passed some of that on to people who are struggling tonight after the typhoon.”
The home crowd refused to stop believing, with roars of “Nippon!” filling the stadium as Scotland threatened to snatch away the hosts’ dream of reaching the last eight for the first time since the Rugby World Cup began 32 years ago.
In the quarter-finals Japan must overcome South Africa, the shock losers in their “Brighton Miracle” encounter four years ago – a celebration spoiled by Scotland a few days later when they sent Japan out of the 2015 tournament.
Koji Hoshino, an office worker from Tokyo, said the victory was sweet revenge for Scotland’s win against Japan in 2015. “We’ve been preparing for this for four years,” he said. “This is important for the people here and it is important for the country. I don’t know how far we’ll go … but we can dream.”
Emily Finch, an Anglo-Japanese woman who travelled from London to watch the rugby, said: “It was an incredibly stressful morning after the typhoon wondering if the Japan vs Scotland match could actually happen or not. I don’t think we found out until around 11am if the match would actually go ahead and I’d come all the way to Japan for just two games so I would have been devastated if Japan didn’t play today.
“I can’t describe how happy I am to see Japan win against Scotland especially as Japan is not an old rugby nation and are the underdogs. Scotland played well but Japan just seemed to want victory so much more and ultimately annihilated them. I cannot be happier.
“Being half-Japanese half-British myself, it’s fantastic to see the whole country back such a diverse Japanese team. It truly shows Japan is starting to change their definition of what it means to be actually ‘Japanese’ and accept all kind of backgrounds into their country.
“My dad bought the tickets for this match last year but he sadly died unexpectedly in May and he couldn’t make it so I came in his place with his best mate. He would have loved watching Japan beat Scotland.”
Fans in replica shirts were mingling with Scotsmen in kilts posing for photographs outside the stadium a couple of hours after World Rugby announced that the match would go ahead.
There was no such reprieve for the northeastern town of Kamaishi, where flooding had left the organisers with no choice but to cancel the lunchtime game between Canada and Namibia. It was a cruel blow for the town, whose involvement in the tournament is inextricably linked with another natural disaster – the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in which almost 19,000 people died, including more than 1,000 in Kamaishi.
With their match at the Recovery Memorial Stadium cancelled, Canadian players grabbed shovels and helped clear the mud from Kamaishi’s streets. Residents flew fishermen’s flags at 12.15pm, the time the match should have kicked off, while volunteers repaired the fan zone to ensure it was ready for Japan’s evening kick-off against with Scotland.
The match may have been called off, “but the amazing people here aren’t letting that ruin things! They are rebuilding the Fan Zone, as I type, for the community to come together and continue celebrating,” tweeted Jennifer Nieuwendyk, a Canadian rugby fan.
In Yokohama, the talk among home supporters was of resilience and the potential for sport to lift the gloom, even for a couple of hours. Japan had fought for their win beneath clear night skies, but on a day that had started with news of the death and destruction Typhoon Hagibis had left in its wake.
World Rugby attempted to reassure visiting fans about large amounts of water that had built up around the stadium, which is located within the city’s engineered flood defences. “This is normal and should not alarm fans,” the governing body said in a statement.
Masaya Nara, a Yokohama resident who was at the match with his son, said: “I totally understand why some people felt it was inappropriate to hold the match here after the typhoon, and I wondered if perhaps I felt the same way. But for the same reason it’s important for Japan to win and give people heart … you can see it from both sides.”
Fittingly, the teams’ first duty once they entered a stadium filled with the red and white of the home support was to observe a moment’s silence for the 25 people reported to have died in the typhoon. Bill Beaumont, the World Rugby chairman, said in a statement: “On behalf of World Rugby, our thoughts and sympathies are with everyone in Japan at this difficult time.
“Japan has proven to be the warmest, the best of Rugby World Cup hosts. We stand together with you in solidarity. Such devastation and threat to human life places everything into perspective and, while we have been doing everything we can to ensure … matches take place as scheduled, the bigger picture of wellbeing and safety is far more important.”
Like many other travelling home fans, Scotland supporter Chris McGill, who was combining rugby matches with a business trip to Japan, had set his alarm early to wait for World Rugby’s announcement. “When there was an earthquake in Tokyo as well as the typhoon I thought, now it’s going to be an act of God that sends us home,” he said. “You’ve got to say that the Japanese authorities have done a great job, but your heart has to go out to the people who have been affected by the typhoon.”
As Japan’s players hugged each other and shook the hands of the team they had sent out of the tournament, the crowd stayed on their feet and clapped their way through the J-pop hit Rising Sun. After another breathtaking night for Japanese rugby, Michael Leitch and his men must now answer the question: how high can the sun go?
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