It took 29 years for Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda to surrender after World War II had ended. He had been deployed to the Philippines to disrupt Allied operations and he lurked in the jungles until 1974, attacking unsuspecting farmers and having the odd guerilla skirmish with police. Pamphlets were airdropped to convince him that the war was over and it was okay to go home. He dismissed them as enemy lies — how could there still be a man, woman or child alive in Japan if it had lost?
Under Bushidō, the codes of honour employed widely at the time, Onoda’s generation was taught that surrender was never an option.
Needless to say, today things are quite different than under imperial rule. Still, certain values linger in the collective subconscious. Values, one might argue, that have permeated the rugby field and have been key to securing the Brave Blossoms a maiden World Cup quarterfinal spot. There, they face the Springboks, a side that cannot afford to underestimate their determination once more.
“Having talked to a lot of people who’ve played there and worked there, from a psychological perspective, Japanese people seem to be quite subservient, meaning that once they buy into something, they go for it full on,” says sports psychologist Professor Pieter Kruger. “You get that sense when they play as well that the one thing they are good at is truly sticking to their game plan and doing what’s expected of them.
“And I think from a little bit of a cultural perspective, as well, [it’s about] their mindset. When they set their minds to something, they are just relentless. They keep on going, and they’ll go until they keel over rather than giving up. And I think it’s something that worked for them.”
No one can better attest to the efficacy of that attitude than Scotland. After a superb 45 minutes of rugby, Japan began to tire in the second half and allowed the Scots back into the game with two quickfire tries. The tide was turning. Yet, the hosts stood resolute for the next 25 minutes. Even on the TV screen it was obvious that every muscle in the pack was tight and aching. Isileli Nakajima came on only in the 56th minute but, after an immense effort, looked as though he was ready to fall into a pitch-side grave by the end.
The fight complements the technique. Japanese rugby has taken enormous strides over the past eight years and is the product of a considered effort to grow the game.
Kruger was in Brighton in 2015 when the Blossoms first began to bloom for the world. He was employed as the Springboks’ performance psychologist, and can now joke about the serious work he had to do in the aftermath of that shocker to get the players’ heads straight.
That match set both sides on respective paths that are now intersecting once more. Although the Boks have learned from their humbling, they are also facing a team that has much-improved themselves.
“[We’re seeing] the combination of that attitude, the hard work and the grinding with proper systems, from a coaching staff who clearly know what they’re doing,” Kruger says. “The key ingredient is belief, because if you look at confidence and belief, confidence is technically a function of memory — it’s that ability to know you’ve actually done it before. It’s telling yourself that I’m good enough to get there.
“They’ve now turned a few strong teams — Scotland, Ireland — [and] they’ve beaten South Africa, four years ago. So there’s a memory bank where they know if ‘we stick to what we do, and we keep on doing as good as we can, we can actually beat teams’,” Kruger says.
What Kiwi Jamie Joseph and his coaching staff have managed to do so well is marry the inherent work ethic at his disposal with a style that can optimally harness that mindset.
Fast and skilful, Japan look to make up for their lack of brawn purely by outplaying their opponents. The simple idea is to keep the ball, and the phases, perpetually moving. This is made clear by the fact that back-rower Kazuki Himeno has the third-most runs across the World Cup and is closely followed by winger Kotaro Matsushima who, incidentally, is also tied for the most tries across the tournament.
“I think Japan’s attack is probably one of the best set-ups in world rugby — The way they use the complete width of the field,” says Western Province coach John Dobson.
“You saw in the game against Scotland, they made about 150 carries and they made about 500m … They’re averaging over 3m a carry, which is staggeringly high.
“So they’re using width and space which will put us under pressure a lot. We’ve heard how hard they’ve trained for the last few years and how much they’re conditioned. They’re conditioned for 50 minutes of ball-in-play, which is unheard of at this level. You know, top tier teams only get to about 36, 38 minutes.”
The answer to this flair, Dobson says, will be obvious: strength. The sheer power at Rassie Erasmus’s disposal should, in theory, be enough to crush the Japanese resistance. The Boks will look to find touch whenever possible, well aware that line-outs favour them. The resultant mauls will also be something Joseph will be keen to avoid.
Ironically it was the scrum, however, that undid South Africa in 2015, with Japanese captain Michael Leitch famously deciding to go for the win instead of taking the three points that would have guaranteed a still seismic draw.
It’s moments like these that make it apparent that something more is at play in this team, something intangible that even imports like Leitch and our own Pieter Labuschagné — who has the most tackles across the tournament — are not immune to contracting. The Springboks, like they did for years ago, enter this as heavy favourites. But it would be a mistake to think Sunday’s opponents care about that for a second.