Edmund Charles Blunden CBE MC is remembered as a well-travelled poet and war hero but fewer people are aware of his impact on the early development of rugby in Japan.
Born in London in 1896, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital and Queen’s College, Oxford. He had published his first book of poems while still a teenager and was posted to the Western Front as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1915 at the age of 19.
He fought at both the Battle of the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele. In October 1917 he was gassed but survived and was later awarded the Military Cross. He continued to write poetry throughout the conflict and wrote specifically about his wartime experiences in Undertones of War (1928).
In 1924 he accepted a position of Professor of English at the University of Tokyo and made the journey to Japan. There he was introduced to a student called Shigeru Kayama, who would go on to become one of the most significant individuals in the development of rugby in Japan.
Blunden himself had enjoyed playing rugby and cricket in his youth and though it is unknown whether he personally coached Kayama, it is known that he would assist him in his appreciation of the sport.
In 1925 Kayama travelled to England and served a rugby apprenticeship with Richmond and Harlequins. On his return he helped to found the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) in 1926. In 1930 Japan played its first game as a national side and Kayama was coach.
While still a player Kayama had written a book explaining his philosophy on the playing of the game that would influence future generations of Japanese players. Included in the book was a poem written by Blunden. While in England Kayama presented a copy of his book to the Rugby Football Union. This copy is now on display in the World Rugby Museum’s special exhibition Brave Blossoms: The History of Rugby in Japan.
In later life Blunden would become Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He was awarded a CBE in 1951 and his name is one of 16 recorded in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. His rugby poem was called ‘UP, UP!’ and is as follows: