Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Rugby in Japan, Freddie Burns looks to debunk the myths. Part 1: Culture

Posted on 26 February 2021 by Xander Chevallier

Freddie Burns receives the ball ten metres from Wasps’ try line and surveys his options. Matthew Tait takes a short line but overruns the ball. The four men supporting him have now become three.

From Burns’ perspective, Telusa Veainu seems like an obvious man to pass to, but he decides against it. Burns gives himself one last chance to take the conventional route, but a split-second decision leads to an ambitious two-man miss pass.

The ball soars straight over two of his Leicester Tigers teammates and towards Peter Betham on the left wing. Opposition player Christian Wade rushes up quickly, sniffing an interception.

Freddie Burns on the attack for Bath. Credit: Patrick Khachfe, Onside Images

Wade reaches up with a glint in his eye waiting for it to nestle into his hand. But Burns has got it right. The ball floats inches over Wade’s index finger, sailing perfectly to Betham. Without even breaking his stride Betham runs the ball in towards the posts levelling the game 25 minutes in.

This spectacular performance was Burns’ last game at the club, an agonising loss in the semi-finals by a single point. He then spent three years at his boyhood club Bath, a fairy-tale move that did not play out the way he had planned, stifled by mistakes, selection decisions and differing views on how to play the game.

This season he made the bold move over to Japan to play at Challenge League side Shokki Shuttles, with the aim of experiencing a new system and a new culture. An experience that smacked him in the face as soon as he arrived.

“I was in my first week of training over here,” said Burns “and I saw two players having an altercation. This is nothing new for me, we play a contact sport and tempers do flare up every now and then even in training, but this one was different. The older one was grabbing the younger one, but the younger one didn’t do anything back.”

Burns had discovered the deep rooted belief in the authority of the senpai, meaning senior, over the kōhai, the younger. Stemming from the ancient system of Confucianism, there is an informal hierarchy in Japanese culture where elders are always expected to be respected.

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“I was on the other side of the pitch and I was just baffled, but one of the Japanese boys explained to me that that’s how things work over here.

“It translates to the socials as well. When you ‘cheers’ someone with a drink, if you’re their senpai or deemed higher up the system, they have to make sure their glass is lower than yours. It’s little things like that that you really question, but again it’s just how the culture is.”

One of the biggest clichés around playing rugby in Japan is that all players have to go and work for the company in the morning before they train in the evening. When asked, Burns pauses and a wry grin spreads across his face.

“I’ve been asked this question a lot but no, I’m here purely to play rugby. But there are boys that do both.

“A typical day starts at around seven or eight in the morning with all the boys having a weights session. Then after that, the company boys will put on their suits or factory clothes and they’ll go to work while us professional boys will have another session during the day.

“Then, later in the afternoon everyone reconvenes and we’ll have a meeting before going back outside for a full training session.

“Although it’s very different from what I’m used to, a lot of the boys actually prefer it. In Japan you usually get a pay rise every year that you’ve worked for a company.

“Some of these boys have worked here for 10, 12, 15 years, so it means the minute they stop playing rugby they’ve got a job to walk into.”

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Although the ‘company boys,’ as Burns puts it, may find the transition into life after rugby easier than those who are fully professional in England, the work ethic to play at this level and work a job is impressive.

However Burns explains how the culture of hard work is inherent in Japanese society and so is taught to players from an early age.

“One of the main differences I’ve noticed between here and England is how much the players love to run. They love it; in games, in training, everywhere.

“In England the day before a game we’d do a small warm up, jog through some plays, and then we’d finish. All in all we’d be on the pitch for about 15, 20 minutes tops.

“In my first preseason match, which came about five weeks of me getting here, my GPS from the session the night before recorded that I’d run 7.5km!

“Seven and a half kilometres, the night before my first 80 minutes in seven months!

“I kept thinking during the session, ‘surely they’ll stop now’ but they just kept going. But that’s just their culture, they just love running.”

This is the first of two articles exploring Freddie Burns’s life playing for the Shokki Shuttles and trying to debunk or confirm some of the myths around playing club rugby in Japan.