In an ongoing series on rugby in Japan, Michael Burgess gets the perspective of a World Cup-winning All Black, the son of a Kiwi rugby legend who has revived his career at the Sunwolves and a Japanese player who learnt the game in New Zealand.
Former All Black Richard Kahui will never forget his first night in Japan.
Kahui, who played 17 tests, including five games at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, signed with Toshiba in 2013, after an unfortunate run with injuries in New Zealand.
Kahui and wife Amy arrived at their apartment in Fuchu – 30 minutes from Tokyo – but found it only contained a fridge and a futon.
"We went out for dinner that night," said Kahui. "But we couldn't read anything. We were feeling quite helpless over the first few weeks, trying to get things done."
Some Kiwi teammates helped them source cutlery and utensils but even basic tasks like shopping and setting up the house were complicated, mainly because of the language barrier.
Even arranging for their personal `Hanko' stamp, necessary for most official transactions for residents in Japan, wasn't that straightforward, nor was setting up bank accounts or a phone.
"It was difficult but not something that put us off," said Kahui. "We chose to be here, so we chose to make the best of it. And overall we have loved it."
There are nuances, like ordering steaks online (supermarkets generally don't stock the larger meat cuts) and the myriad of societal norms around eating and drinking.
On the field, across six seasons in Japan, Kahui has witnessed an evolution of the local competition.
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"There's been a complete transition from amateur teams with a couple of professional players and almost all Japanese coaches to now where there can be nine or 10 foreigners and plenty of overseas coaches."
Like other compatriots, Kahui took time to adapt to the Japanese rugby model, with their top-down approach.
"In New Zealand, everyone has an opinion, from players to coaches, and you work to the endpoint," says Kahui. "Here there was probably less sharing of ideas and it took me two years to understand my role within the team, but you also have to earn respect within that."
The Kahui's have committed fully to life in Japan, with two of their three children born there, and tried to immerse themselves in the society.
Overall Kahui has loved his life, on and off the field.
"There have been so many great experiences, especially the camaraderie with the boys," said Kahui, who has been captain at Toshiba over the past two seasons. "It's been wonderful for our family too, though it was difficult for my wife at first to make friends and get used to it all."
Michael Little: Son of a legend
When Michael Little signed with Mitsubishi two years ago, he had an instant advantage over most other Kiwi players who end up in Japan.
He spoke and understand Japanese, and well beyond the basics of `Arigato', `Konnichiwa' and `Sayonara'.
Little had spent two years there as a child, while his father (50 test All Black Walter Little) played for Sanyo (now Panasonic).
"It was an amazing experience," said Little. "I was nine or ten years old and my little brother and I were the only white kids at school. We would have little conversations with each other and our parents didn't know what we were saying."
It certainly made things a lot easier when Little arrived for the 2017 Top League season.
"I picked it up again and it was good being able to communicate," said Little. "It makes such a difference, especially in everyday life."
Little's career has taken off since he arrived in Japan.
He had impressed for North Harbour in the 2016 National Provincial Competition, helping them earn promotion, but the closest he came to a Super Rugby gig was a spot in the Blues' wider training squad.
"I missed out, so I decided to come over here. It's been a great move for me."
His first impressions of the rugby was similar to most Kiwis who make the move.
"It was a lot quicker and faster, not as much structure and the skill level was pretty good.
"And we worked hard; in the first pre-season we clocked up a lot of kilometres."
A connection with Tony Brown then led to the midfield back being picked up by the Sunwolves.
Little has performed well on the bigger stage, with some eye-catching displays last season and enjoys the cosmopolitan nature of the team.
"There are Georgians, South Africans, Scottish, Irish and the Island boys," said Little.
"We weren't the biggest team but tried to keep it in play and tire people out over 80 minutes."
Like everyone associated with the Tokyo-based team, he was shattered by the announcement of their axing (they'll be cut at the end of the 2021 Super Rugby season) but plans to stay on in Japan.
"I'll take every year as it comes and it's another year until I am eligible [for Japan] but it's a goal," said Little, who is also eligible for New Zealand, Fiji (heritage) and Italy (birth).
In the all-conquering Christchurch Boys High School 1st XV side of 2004, Kosei Ono tended to stand out.
Among the sons of Canterbury farmers, lawyers, accountants and businessmen was a shy Asian kid, living around 10,000km from where he was born in Japan.
But Ono thrived, playing outside Colin Slade and sharing the dressing room with Owen Franks, in a team that went unbeaten across the season.
Three years later Ono was in the Japan squad for the Rugby World Cup in Britain and France.
It gives Ono a unique perspective.
The former Brave Blossoms first five eighth, who played 34 tests between 2007 and 2016 and started in the famous win over South Africa at the last World Cup, learnt his rugby in New Zealand, where he completed almost all of his schooling.
Born in Nagoya, Japan, his family emigrated to Christchurch when Ono was three.
He enjoyed a typical New Zealand upbringing — plenty of sports and outdoor pursuits — and then made his mark at Christchurch Boys High, before heading back to Japan at the end of 2004.
"I learnt a lot in New Zealand so I was pretty lucky in that way," said Ono. "It's a different way for most people."
It means that Ono, who speaks with a discernible Kiwi accent, is bilingual.
"It's pretty good for a 10," said Ono. "To speak instantly, communicate on the run."
As a veteran of the Japan rugby scene, Ono feels the impact of the famous win over the Springboks was wide-ranging.
"The mindset of Japanese players has changed a lot," said Ono. "There's no more 'they are bigger than me, it's okay to lose'."
He says Japanese rugby has become more professional across the board, kick-started by the influence of Eddie Jones between 2012 and 2015. Players are stronger and bigger, with more emphasis on strength and conditioning training, along with the development of skills to compete at the top level.
Ono will be a keen observer at this World Cup, with the Brave Blossoms in the spotlight like never before.
"It's because of the results at the last World Cup," said Ono. "Before that Japan were never really expected to win games at the World Cup. Now they are, especially being at home.
"That's where the All Blacks have an advantage over all the other teams; expectation is ingrained in them. But there is so much potential in rugby in Asia and hopefully, this tournament will provide a boost."
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