'Japanese John Travolta' the key figure behind Japan's 2019 World Cup hosting bid
Last Updated: 21/09/18 10:58am
As Japan celebrates the one-year countdown to the Rugby World Cup on Thursday, few will be familiar with the curious case of the 'Japanese John Travolta' who inspired the idea.
On the pitch, the usual suspects must look for weaknesses in the armour of the mighty All Blacks as New Zealand chase a hat-trick of titles at the 2019 tournament, the first to be held in Asia.
Hosts Japan will be aiming to prove their breakthrough World Cup of 2015 was no fluke after the "Brave Blossoms" won three pool matches, including a stunning 34-32 victory over two-time champions South Africa.
But the history of just how the tournament came to Japan can be traced back more than 40 years.
It's a story woven with romance and inextricably linked to the wanderlust of a rugby fanatic who fell in love with the magical Welsh team of the 1970s.
Koji Tokumasu, senior director of the World Cup organising committee and former Asia Rugby boss, had watched Wales play in Osaka and, bewitched by their swashbuckling style, decided to visit the country in 1977 to "discover their secret" - financing his trip by delivering frozen seafood by van.
"I was so overwhelmed by the Welsh performance," Tokumasu said. "They had Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams, they were passing the ball from number one to number 15.
"In Japan you sacrifice yourself for the good of the team, but in Wales they embrace individuality. I wanted to see Wales with my own eyes."
Tokumasu, who first raised the prospect of Japan hosting a World Cup back in 2003, spent two years in Cardiff in his mid-twenties, lugging a fold-up bed from house to house as he sought accommodation and working as a cleaner and children's tutor to make ends meet.
He was also nicknamed the "Japanese John Travolta" by fellow college students for dancing on tables at the weekly disco.
After returning to Japan to teach, loaded with information about grassroots rugby, Tokumasu coached his school team to a national title.
He subsequently took roles with the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) and is widely considered the driving force behind the country's World Cup bid, following their success co-hosting the football World Cup with South Korea in 2002.
"I remember [former] chairman Nobby Mashimo wanted to say something 'big' at a New Year's speech in 2003," said Tokumasu.
"I suggested he say Japan wants to host the World Cup," added the 66-year-old.
"I'd bet money on Japan reaching the quarters. But it depends how much, I don't want to lose all my fortune!"
"None of the JRFU board members had heard about it, so I called [former International Rugby Board chief executive] Mike Miller and asked what he thought. He said, 'It's not impossible' - and it sort of went from there."
As Japan marks a year to the opening game between the host side and Russia, Tokumasu admitted there would be pressure on the Brave Blossoms to put together a strong run after making such a splash at the last World Cup under Eddie Jones.
"Eddie gave confidence to the team in 2015," he said. "I was in the stadium in Brighton [against South Africa] and after five minutes I said to myself 'Jesus, the players are trying to win this game!'
"If that atmosphere can be created again, they can reach the quarter-finals," insisted Tokumasu. "After the pool games, 12 teams go home. Only eight teams stay for the quarter-finals - that's the real World Cup.
"If Japan aren't still in the tournament, it makes a big difference. It will be very difficult to maintain excitement, I have to say."
Current Japan coach Jamie Joseph has led his team to big wins over Tonga, Italy and Georgia in recent months - and a 23-23 draw with France in Paris last November underlined their potential to fell giants.
"I have every confidence that we have the quality of players and coaching staff to make it to the knockout phase," World Cup organising committee chief executive Akira Shimazu told AFP.
"The platform that was built in England at the 2015 tournament is a strong base to work from."
Tokumasu is even more bullish.
"I'd bet money on Japan reaching the quarters," he said. "But it depends how much, I don't want to lose all my fortune!"