Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 November 2019

'Rugby embodies the principles we value most...' meet the Dubai-based Japanese fan whose family lived and breathed the sport

Kimi Makishima-Akai, whose father was among the pioneering players when Japan first started playing Test matches, talks about her love for rugby and how the Brave Blossoms World Cup exploits have made her so proud

Kimi Makishima-Akai with her most treasured photo of her father with a friend in their rugby kit. Leslie Pableo for The National 
Kimi Makishima-Akai with her most treasured photo of her father with a friend in their rugby kit. Leslie Pableo for The National 

The size of the Japanese community in the UAE might be dwarfed by that of South Africa’s.

But when the two countries meet in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final on Sunday, Springbok supporters will likely find themselves in the minority here.

Japan have swiftly become most people’s second favourite team. The reasons are many, starting with the warmth of the welcome that has radiated from the host country – even when viewed 8,000kms away via a television feed.

Then there is the magnetism of their team, never more apparent than during their emotional win over Scotland in their seminal pool match at the weekend, in the aftermath of Typhoon Hagibis.

While the new fans are no doubt more than welcome, there is one Dubai-based Japan supporter whose allegiance could scarcely be more deep-rooted.

Kimi Makishima-Akai first moved to the Middle East in 1977 when she accepted a job as an air stewardess with Gulf Air in Bahrain.

She does not have the TV package at her home on Palm Jumeirah that shows the matches, and she says when she does go out to watch her team, she is often met by surprised reactions.

“Telling my friends I was going to watch the match, they said, ‘What? Do you have to?’” Makishima-Akai said.

“Most of my friends are European. But even if I tell my Japanese friends that my father played for Japan, they say, ‘What? Before the war?’ They are quite surprised.

“Maybe it is because of my age, my gender, the fact I am eastern. These are all stereotypes. Why does this woman want to watch rugby? But I am from a very old rugby family.”

The family ties go back about as far as the international game has been played in the country.

Her father, Katsumi Makishima, was among the pioneering players when Japan first started taking part in Test matches in the 1930s.

Now that Japan are blazing a trail through the very top of the world game, she is glad to be so closely associated with them. But she acknowledges that has not always been the case.

“My parents must have taken us to every single match,” she said of her childhood in Tokyo.

“It is very cold in Japan in winter. My memories were that, at New Year, on January 2 or 3, we had to go and watch rugby. It was suffering!

“It was a) cold, and b) I didn’t understand. But we still had to go. Especially if my brother [Kazumi] was playing, we all had to go and suffer.”

She admits to being a “pessimistic” fan. As such, she missed the epic win over Ireland in the pool stage, as she could not foresee the team winning.

She did not make the same mistake for the Scotland match, finding a berth for herself with a number of Japanese friends at Bidi Bondis.

And she is unlikely to miss any of the South Africa game coming up on Sunday. Not like last time, when she was staying with her sister and brother-in-law in Tokyo.

“It meant staying up to 1am, and I said to them ‘Who wants to stay up and watch Japan being beaten by the Springboks?’” she said of the 2015 Brighton win.

“I went to bed, then at 2am my brother-in-law was banging on the door telling us we had to get up.

“We couldn’t believe it. We asked what was happening, and he said Japan was winning. We watched the second half, and it was history in the making.

“Even the conservative media, like the BBC, said it was the biggest upset in rugby history. Imagine, making a film [The Brighton Miracle] out of it.”

She believes there are number of reasons for the success of both the team so far, and the tournament as a whole.

For one, “Michael Leitch is the rock for all that is happening,” while the game has also become embedded in the national psyche.

“I think that is because the sport of rugby embodies the principles that Japanese value most,” she said.

“Teamwork, solidarity, discipline, patience, integrity, fair play and respect. All these core values of rugby resonate with Japanese people. My father used to say rugby is a sport for gentlemen.”

And the overwhelmingly positive reviews the hosting of the competition has had?

“It makes me immensely proud,” she said. “I read Ben Ryan saying, ‘To everyone bar none, Japan hosting the World Cup has been a roaring success’, and that it was the best there has ever been.

“A friend of mine sent me a link to a story saying it may well be the best, the friendliest, the most successful.

"That is incredible to hear. I think that is a reflection of the love and respect that the Japanese people have towards this sport.”

Kimi Makashima, a long-term UAE resident from Japan, showing old photos of rugby games at her apartment in Dubai. Leslie Pableo for The National 
Kimi Makashima, a long-term UAE residen from Japan, looking through old photos of rugby games at her apartment in Dubai. Leslie Pableo for The National

Updated: October 16, 2019 10:01 PM

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