On Friday February 10th in the lavish setting of the Portopia Hotel in Kobe, the Japan Rugby Football Union together with the Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers Rugby Club staged a remarkable memorial event to celebrate the life of Seiji Hirao, arguably Japan’s finest and certainly most famous rugby player. Attended by over 1,300 friends, teammates and colleagues the event featured eulogies from former Prime Minister Mori, Honorary President of the JRFU and a particularly emotional address from Hirao’s former High School coach Ryoji Yamaguchi.
Called ‘Mr Rugby’ by the Japan Times, Hirao tragically passed away late last year at the age of 53 after a battle with cancer. He won 35 caps for Japan, playing in 3 Rugby World Cups – 1987, 1991 (as captain) and 1995, and went on to coach them at the 1999 tournament.
For once however, the bare statistics don’t even begin to do the man justice. Hirao played one season (1985-86) with Richmond in London in between his university career and joining Kobe Steel. It’s perhaps difficult today to image how, in an age before the internet, fax and mobile phone he can have been at the time of his arrival in London, aged 22, almost completely unknown here, and at the same time already a David Beckham like figure in Japan.
Rugby’s popularity in Japan was at that time quite immense – live TV coverage of all major games, the Olympic stadium full for finals, and extensive national newspaper coverage. Hirao first burst onto the scene there as the captain and star of an obscure state school from Kyoto, Fushimi High School, which under the inspirational leadership of Yamaguchi, former Japan Number 8, sensationally beat all the leading private schools to win the high profile national schools tournament. He then went on to lead Doshisha University to three university championship wins, and take his place in the Japanese national side from the age of 19 onwards.
Amidst massive media speculation about where he would continue his career (the Japanese club system was then, as today, dominated by corporate sides and there was a quasi-draft system as in US collegiate sport) he caused something of a stir by announcing he was taking a sabbatical year in London and would make up his mind after that. As someone who enjoyed movie star good looks – he was compared on arrival by some ladies here to a young Omar Sharif – he had legions of schoolgirl fans in Japan who were distraught at this decision.
And yet, at that time he was a totally unknown quantity outside of Japan. Hirao soon showed that he had real class: pace, great lines of running and all the other attributes, but in addition a rare poise and ability to read the game. Starting in the opening game on the left wing, he ended up playing every position in the back line except scrum half for the Richmond 1st XV that season, and won many friends in the club. His English improved markedly and he enjoyed London life, and being out of the Japanese media spotlight (for the most part) enormously. He always spoke fondly of his time in London – and in particular that he had learned the importance of the social side of the game!
Before he joined them, Kobe Steel were at that time a strong but continuously underperforming side on the big stage in Japan. Under Hirao ‘The Steelers’ won 7 consecutive national club championship titles, to seal his reputation as both a great player and on-field leader. Following his spell as national coach, he returned as General Manager of Kobe Steel, who won 3 further national championships under his guidance. Such achievements both in the ‘amateur’ and then early professional era were a very big financial deal in corporate Japan.
Another sign of the level of fame Hirao achieved in Japan was that in recent years a blockbuster award-winning TV series ‘School Wars’ (think ‘Grange Hill’ with a massive rugby theme running through it) was a semi-biographical story of his life at Fushimi High School. Hard to imagine, I know, but true: Japan remains in some senses another rugby world, even to this day.
Hirao was much in demand as speaker on the corporate circuit in Japan – in particular on the interface of business and sport – and had spoken a lot in recent years about the continuous underperformance of the Japanese national side, despite the strength of the big corporate sides which to this day still dominate the Top League there. This was something which troubled him – in perhaps an echo of some of the issues facing top professional club leagues and national sides in Europe now, he felt that traditionally players had a strong tendency to feel more allegiance to their clubs than the national side and the clubs for their part were over possessive of their players. No one was more pleased than Hirao when Eddie Jones, demanding and receiving powers which no other Japanese national coach had ever previously had in terms of player access and resources, was able to turn this situation around and deliver their sensational performance at Rugby World Cup 2015.
With that success – including a 25 million live TV audience for the Japan vs Samoa game at the World Cup, the largest one nation live rugby TV audience ever (and Rugby World Cup 2019 being in Japan) – likely to usher in another boom time for rugby there comparable to the ’80s and ’90s, and with many of the stars of the ‘Brave Blossoms’ deservedly being ranked globally as players, it’s not easy to put Hirao’s achievements into context. Many judges of the game have stated unequivocally however that Seiji Hirao could have rightly taken his place in a World XV at almost any time of his playing career.
Seiji was very prominent indeed on behalf of the JRFU in their bid for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which failed by one vote, and repeated the exercise again when they were awarded the 2019 tournament. He maintained his role with Kobe Steel and position on the Advisory Committee for the 2019 Rugby World Cup up to the time of his sad demise.
It was a pleasure and for me personally to get to know Seiji particularly well during his year in London, when we played together at Richmond, and as a former Kobe Steel player in 1980-83 who subsequently re-joined the company in London I watched with pleasure the success of the company team under his leadership, ably assisted by a series of mostly fellow Oxford University players who also went on to join the club. Following Hirao’s passing away, they were unanimous in paying tribute to the way he had made them welcome. Having learned a great deal during his year in London he took the lead in establishing an open, internationalist culture at the Steelers, and one which moreover emphasised the fun aspects of the game.
The turnout for Hirao’s memorial event was in itself a massive tribute to him, and within that no less than 6 of the Kobe Steel ‘gaijin’ (foreign) players traveled from London, Dublin, Brisbane and Sydney to pay their respects to the great man. I certainly regarded it as an honour to be at what was a truly remarkable memorial event.
About the Author – Reg Clark won rugby Blues at Oxford in 1978 and 1979 before working and playing rugby for Kobe Steel 1980-83. He was Kobe’s European Finance Director until 1997. He is now CEO of Rhino Rugby, and last year received a Foreign Minister’s Commendation Award from the government of Japan for his contribution to UK-Japan relations.