An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation
Japanese player finds plenty of rugby passion in the deep south
Matt Calman interviews Fumiaki Tanaka, one of Japan’s best rugby players, about his debut season for the Otago Highlanders in the just-completed Super 15 tournament.
The emergence of Kyoto-born Fumiaki Tanaka in provincial rugby’s toughest arena this year was hugely significant, especially for Japanese rugby. While many New Zealanders have played for professional rugby clubs in Japan, Tanaka is the first Japanese rugby player to sign a Super Rugby contract.
The 28-year-old’s bullet pass, sniping runs, lion-hearted defence and infectious personality have made him a popular cult figure in the deep south, and his admiration for the fans is mutual.
“I think that New Zealand rugby fans all enjoy rugby and love rugby from the bottom of their hearts,” he says. “The whole city [Dunedin] is excited with rugby.”
Tanaka’s standout performances at halfback in the ITM Cup for Otago in 2012 earned him inclusion in the Highlanders’ Super 15 squad for the 2013 season. The Super 15 is played by teams from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and is regarded by most rugby fans as the best provincial rugby competition in the world.
At the time of his signing Tanaka spoke about what it meant to him: “I feel so honoured to be … Japan's first Super Rugby player. I want to play as many games as possible and show the world what Japanese rugby players are capable of. I want to believe there's nothing I can't accomplish.”
Tanaka debuted for Japan in 2008 and has since played 37 tests. In Japan, he is contracted to the Ota City-based Panasonic Wild Knights, where he played alongside Otago legend Tony Brown. Following his stint with Japan at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, Tanaka and fellow Japanese player Shota Horie were invited to play for Otago by their former teammate Brown, who had become the province’s new coach.
Tanaka’s breakthrough into Super 15 has been inspirational for players back home.
“I think Japanese rugby players look at me, and their willingness to take on a challenge has increased. Also, I think the world is more interested in rugby now.”
Adjusting to life and playing rugby in Otago has been enjoyable, especially experiencing the egalitarian nature of New Zealand society.
“There are no hierarchical relationships,” he says. “Everyone is friendly to everyone and I can enjoy life. I had a bit of trouble with the language but found playing rugby easy. Practice time is shorter than in Japan, so the amount of free time I have has increased. So, I’m able to live a relaxed lifestyle.”
Was it easy adapting to the Kiwi style of rugby?
“Each team has their own style, and I enjoy watching each of those. However, the basics are the same regardless of team and I think the style is simple.”
Tanaka is one of the smallest rugby players in professional rugby - at just 166 centimetres in height and weighing just 72 kilograms. Most of his opponents weigh more than 100kg, but his size doesn’t hold him back from the physical nature of the New Zealand game. Otago Rugby posted his “famous forward flip tackle” on Northland wing Tui Faasisila on YouTube – a classic example of his tenacious defence.
Tanaka played mainly off the bench for the Highlanders, due to the presence of All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith, but his impressive performance in the win over the Auckland Blues – was his favourite memory of 2013.
Tanaka is currently negotiating his contract for next year so is unable to reveal where he will play next season, but says he would like to come back to New Zealand.
- Tanaka's blog about playing rugby in Otago (in Japanese)