Sometimes you need to dream. Sometimes you experience something that totally lifts the heart and mind to another level. Sometimes…just sometimes…you just wish you could drop everything and chase that burning desire in your heart.
Koji Tokumasu knows exactly what it means. However unlike most people he fully acted on his dreams and followed them half way around the world and then, after many years, ensured his dream could be shared with the whole of Japan
Tokumasu is the President of Asia Rugby and the driving force behind Japan hosting the 2019 World Cup. What inspired him to get involved in the game takes only one answer…Wales.
Having been blown away by watching the Wales team of the mid 1970s playing against Japan in Osaka, he decided he had to visit this mysterious land to discover the secret to its rugby success. Little did he know that his journey would end with Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019.
So, at the age of 24, he embarked on a marathon journey by plane, boat and train, arriving in Cardiff with no job, no plan and nowhere to live. A bit like my trip…with a lot less planning, but hey this was the 70’s.
He was only supposed to stay in Wales for a few weeks, but ended up staying for the best part of two years. Along the way, he worked as a cleaner and a children’s tutor to make ends meet, finding accommodation where he could, taking his portable bed from house to house. And, crucially, he made a connection at Cardiff College of Education, being given permission to attend sports science lectures in return for translating Japanese textbooks on gymnastics!
He also played rugby for the college team, as well as Cardiff High School Old Boys, and was present for some of the most famous Wales games of the decade, including the infamous 1978 Andy Haden match against New Zealand.
When he eventually headed home, he took with him everything he had learned about Welsh rugby and its training methods, employing them to great effect as a PE teacher, guiding his school team to the national championship.
Roles with the Japanese RFU followed, culminating in him coming up with the idea of the country staging a World Cup and leading the bid campaign, finally landing the tournament at the second attempt.
But, for where his incredible story began, you have to go back more than 40 years.
“It was September 1975 and I went to see Japan play Wales at the Hanazono Stadium in Osaka,” he recalls.
“The Welsh team had Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies, JPR, Phil Bennett, JJ Williams.
“The way they played I had never seen before, with a lot of passing, beautiful running, flair. That was the beginning of my rugby awakening.”
“I couldn’t stand up after the game was over because I was so overwhelmed by the performance. It was the most beautiful team.
“After everybody had gone, I was on my own in the stadium and thinking what is this I have just seen. I decided then I wanted to go to this country to learn how they play rugby.”
So, to save up the required money, journalist Tokumasu got a part-time job as a frozen food delivery driver and, by September 1977, he had enough money to make the trip – albeit on a shoestring budget.
“I took a Pakistan International flight, 32 hours to Copenhagen, then a train, then a night boat to Harwich,” he said.
“I just wanted to see Wales with my own eyes. But I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn’t know anyone and I had no real plan.
“Before I got the train to Cardiff, I bought a book called Where to Stay in Wales to find the cheapest place, because the cheaper it was the longer I could stay.
“The cheapest was the Cardiff University dormitory. They let me stay only a week though, so I had to find another place.
“Then I looked at the Western Mail and saw an advertisement saying if you clean our house, rooms and garden you can have free accommodation.
“I went to the house and an old lady came to the door. She said I was the fifth person to visit that day, but that I looked the more serious out of the five, so you are in.”
As for his link up with Cardiff College of Education – now known as Cardiff Met – that was another case of good fortune smiling on him.
“In front of the University hall where I was staying in my first week, there is a school, Lady Mary High School,” he said.
“When I walked past, I saw they were playing rugby. So I just went to the schoolyard without any permission and started taking some pictures.
“The PE teacher came over and said ‘what are you doing here?’.
“I said I am from Japan and like Welsh rugby.
“This guy said if you want to learn rugby I can take you to the best place in Wales. He just put me in his car and took me to Cyncoed and introduced me to the College principal.
“It just happened that he was very interested in gymnastics in Japan and wanted to know the curriculum.
“He said if I could get the textbooks and translate them for him, he would let me listen to some of the lectures.
“I was not an official student and I didn’t pay any tuition. It was a special arrangement!
“But the main thing is I belonged to the college rugby club. I played on the wing. I was very good at tackling, so they called me Kamikaze Koji.
“I made so many good friends. I loved playing for the club and I learned so much from the way the team was coached. I just loved the whole experience of Welsh rugby.
“I remember one day watching a group of boys playing touch rugby in Roath Park with a can of coke until the sun set. This is the secret of Welsh rugby.”
When his cleaning job came to an end, Tokumasu found himself without a place to live and ended up taking his portable bed from house to house, as he stayed with college friends.
Then Lady Luck intervened once more as he bumped into a Japanese lady in the street.
“She said she had two daughters who had never been to Japan and she asked me to teach them Japanese,” he said.
“So I became the family tutor and that gave me enough money to rent a flat.”
He was also aided by a timely windfall in the College clubhouse one night.
“I put 20p in the slot machine and all the money came out,” he recalls.
“The owner said it only happens once in half a year. There was about £150.
“I could afford to phone home now, so I called my mother and said ‘I am still alive!’ In addition to training and playing with the college side, Tokumasu also benefited from assistance from the Welsh Rugby Union.
“As soon as I arrived in Cardiff, I went to the WRU offices without any invitation, I just turned up,” he said.
“Ray Williams, the coaching organiser, said he wanted to meet me and arranged several courses for me to join.
“I ended up translating his book, Rugby For Beginners, into Japanese.
“He was a great man. He wrote a foreword in the book saying when I first met Koji, he said he was going to stay in Wales for two weeks, then two months and eventually he was there two years!”
Tokumasu also got to watch the Welsh team once again, being a spectator at some historic matches.
“I saw them play Scotland in 1978 and I went to see Gareth Edwards 50th cap in Twickenham that same month,” he said.
“But the most memorable game I saw was Wales v All Blacks in 1978 when Andy Haden jumped out of the lineout. I was wearing all red with a big scarf around my neck. I was thinking I am going to see Wales beat the All Blacks, but then there was that late penalty.
“I remember the BBC showed the video over and over.”
Finally, in May 1979, the time came for him to head home to Japan, where he moved into education and coaching school rugby teams.
“All the experience I got from Cardiff college, I put onto the field,” he said.
“I coached a high school in Ibaraki city to become Japanese champions, by using Welsh methods.
“I showed them the famous video of the 1973 Barbarians-All Blacks game, so they played just like Wales.”
In the mid 90s, he decided he could be of use to the Japan RFU, given his knowledge of the game overseas, so contacted them about a possible job and ended up being appointed the Head of International Relations.
Then, in 2003, came a pivotal moment.
“I remember our chairman Nobby Mashimo telling me had to say something to the media as a new year’s message. He said what should I say as he wanted to make his story interesting. So I said what about you say we want to host the Rugby World Cup in Japan. He did that and it went from there.”
Dream big and it might just happen.
“I called up Mike Miller, the IRB chief executive, and asked him if he thought it was possible and he said yes and that it would be good for the globalisation of the game.
“So I became general manager of the bid committee.”
There was initial heartache as Japan lost out to New Zealand for staging the 2011 World Cup, but then, in July 2009, they were awarded the 2019 tournament.
“It was a relief when we finally got there, having lost the 2011 bid,” says Koji.
“I had worked hard very hard on it. I made the document, I did the presentation.
“But Yoshiro Mori, the former Prime Minister, was the man who persuaded the Japanese government and companies to get on board.”
Tokumasu is now stepping down as President of the Asia Rugby Union in order to focus all his efforts on not just delivering a successful World Cup in 2019 but also a post-tournament legacy in Japan.
So, 40 years on, how does he look back on his time in Wales?
“If I hadn’t seen that game in Osaka in 1975, my life would have been very different,” he said.
“If I hadn’t come to Wales for two years and had that experience, I wouldn’t have been involved in the World Cup bid. It would not have been possible.
“I was nothing. I was just a young guy that loved Welsh rugby. But coming to this town helped me so much.
“I was only able to communicate with people about the bid because of this experience here.
“If I hadn’t seen that game, if I hadn’t come to Cardiff, if I hadn’t met the people I did, it would all have been different. It was all such a chain of luck.
“But I do believe me coming to Wales played a big part in Japan getting the 2019 World Cup.”
What an amazing life. Well done Tokumasu for an amazing journey
*Interview sourced from several sources including BBC and Wales Online.