Japan have not historically been one of rugby’s strongest sides, with them appearing at every Rugby World Cup finals since the beginning of the tournament but only picking up one win in that long run, against Zimbabwe back in 1991.
However, the 2015 tournament was where the Brave Blossoms really started to show the world what they were capable of, with their famous victory against South Africa in Brighton and further wins against Samoa and the USA seeing them finish third in their pool and secure qualification for the 2019 tournament (which they had already secured a place in as hosts, incidentally).
From that point on, they became a side that every other nation have needed to pay special attention to when coming up against them, and there is no doubt that they will yet again be a handful and a team worth watching when the action in France gets underway.
Ever since Eddie Jones departed in 2015 to take charge of England, having led the Brave Blossoms to those outstanding results, Japan have been coached by New Zealander Jamie Joseph.
Whilst he would have recognised the legacy that Jones had left behind, Joseph has been keen to put his own stamp on things, and he has built a reputation over the last years as someone who is forward-thinking and who makes changes when they are required, rather than waiting until the team starts to drop away from others around them.
Joseph will leave his role at the end of the World Cup to take charge of the Highlanders, but there is little doubt that he has made his mark on Japanese rugby and will be remembered fondly around the nation for helping them to get to where they are today. He will no doubt be hoping that the players can give him a positive note to end on as he brings his time as an international coach to a conclusion for the time being.
In possession, Japan like to play free-flowing attacking rugby, with them known under Joseph and assistant Tony Brown for moving the ball around at speed and being incisive in possession, using the full width of the field where they can.
This was partly adopted from what Japan did under Jones, with the Brave Blossoms using the strength and pace of key winger Kotaro Matsushida to stretch play out and ensure that they used the full width of the pitch where they could, but it has been developed much more under Joseph and now the team is stacked with players who are happy to get on the front foot and make things happen.
It is an exciting style of play that they have which has caught a number of teams out, and, even though there has been a decision by Joseph to be a little more defensive in France where it is appropriate to do so, there is no doubt that they will still push forwards as often as they can in order to put their opponents under constant pressure and try to find the weak points in their setup.
Defensively, Japan have a lot of physicality in their side and use it to great effect, with their forwards often tasked with getting over the ball and securing turnovers and making dominant tackles in order to bring opposing attacks to a swift end.
However, when looking at the overall picture of Japan’s play, this is the area that they tend to struggle in, with their performance at Twickenham Stadium last November indicating a number of problem areas that they need to work on, whilst they didn’t show a great deal of organisation against Italy in their final Summer Nations Series outing either.
If Joseph’s claims about his side being more defensively minded at the World Cup and trying to win favour with refereeing decisions prove to be true, then it could make for a tough tournament for Japan, because, at the moment, they simply don’t look good enough to keep any team out indefinitely.
Whilst the aforementioned and experienced Matsushima will be a key threat for Japan in France, one player who tends to go under the radar but who always plays a key role for the Brave Blossoms, both with and without the ball, is Kazuki Himeno. Playing as a flanker or a number 8, he has shown at times in the last year his abilities at the breakdown and his tendency to make quick sniping runs inside the opposing 22m area when the opportunities arise to make quick gains and to continually push his team towards or over the try line.
Whilst Japan will likely be relying on their offload-orientated style for much of their time at the World Cup, having players who can offer alternative things on the pitch will be vital for then the game plan needs to be changed, and Himeno is one of those who can adapt where necessary.
Having finished third in their pool in 2015 before suffering a quarter-final exit at their home tournament in 2019, Japan will be hoping to go at least one better this time out and to try and reach the final four.
However, they are in a tough pool which could trip them up, and getting out of it will be tough enough, with them drawn to face Samoa, England, Argentina and debutants Chile. Whilst they will back themselves against both Samoa and Chile, England and Argentina will provide tricky tests and are likely to have enough to break through Japan’s fragile defence whenever they get into the Brave Blossoms’ 22m area.
As such, progression from the pool does seem unlikely on paper, although not impossible as they could easily beat England if Steve Borthwick’s side are off the pace. However, a third place finish in the pool and qualification for the 2027 tournament would not be a disastrous result by any means.