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Rebuilding Tonga Through the Bonds that Built Japanese Rugby

An irreplaceable bond of 40 years was behind the charity rugby match to help Tonga recover from the devastating underwater earthquake.

The Emerging Blossoms' Yu Tamura carries the ball as Tonga Samurai XV players pursue him in the Japan Rugby Charity Match 2022 on June 11 at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground. (Norikazu Fukushima)

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

Victims of the undersea volcanic eruption in Tonga in January were in the thoughts of both players and fans at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground. Held to raise funds to help as the country rebuilds, the game saw the next generation of Japan’s national team, the Emerging Blossoms, beat the Tonga Samurai XV, made up of Tongans living in Japan, 31-12. 

The crowd of 8,055 people, meanwhile, cheered unbiasedly for both teams.

Long Decades of Friendship

Sinali Latu, head coach of the Tonga Samurai XV, addressed the crowd in fluent Japanese:

“Ever since Tonga was hit by the volcanic eruption and tsunami on January 15, we have wanted to do something about it. 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 charity activities immediately after learning of the disaster in his homeland, and rushed to the Japan Rugby Union for support.

“This is the time of the year when the domestic league is finished, and the national team is about to start playing. I thought it would be difficult to make it happen at first,” said Latu. “But many people understood, and we were able to hold the match.” 

“I feel nothing but gratitude,” he added.

This sentiment is reflected in the team’s uniform. The emblem, which features a dove as a symbol of peace, and a helmet worn by Japanese samurai, reads “KANSHA” (gratitude) alongside the team’s name. 

The Japanese word means gratitude, but the message was not only about support for the victims of the recent disaster. It was also about more than 40 years of friendship through rugby between the two countries.

Not Only Rugby

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

In 1981, Nofomuli Taumoefolau became the first foreign student to study in Japan from Tonga, where rugby is the national sport. It was 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 at the first Rugby World Cup in 1987 and was a great wing. 

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

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

At the same time, Latu said emphatically, “Many of the 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 field together with Tongan students and players. Out of this 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 as a reminder of the long friendship.

Feletiliki Mau, who designed the emblem, was also a graduate of Daito Bunka University. He was a powerhouse on the Japanese national team in the 2000s, when the team wasn’t 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 distrust toward his team. However, he was able to express his gratitude to Japan and to his Japanese fellow athletes in the emblem ー and in the Tongan traditional war dance “Sipi Tau” ー which he had choreographed for the match.

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

This charity match was made possible by the combined efforts of various players and officials from both countries. The donations, which hold more significant meaning than the amount of money raised, will be delivered to their intended recipients across the Pacific Ocean.

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Author: Hiroshi Yoshida

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