There was a recent poll in Japan listing the country's most recognised public figures. Shinzo Abe, the long-serving Prime Minister, came first. In second place was Michael Leitch, with more than 80 per cent of those surveyed recognising the Japan captain.

It is not hard to see why if you spend any time in Japan, where Leitch is the poster boy of this World Cup. Turn on the television, go into a shop, open a newspaper; his face is everywhere.

That is remarkable not just because rugby ranks below baseball, sumo wrestling and football in popularity, but also because Leitch has conspicuously mixed ethnicity in a largely monolithic society.

Born to a New Zealand father and Fijian mother, Leitch came to Japan aged 16. Initially he admitted to feeling like an 'outsider', but he came to embrace Japan and so the country embraced him. In a separate survey, Leitch, who became a Japanese citizen in 2013, was voted the country's most powerful athlete ahead of Hakuhō Sho, the record-breaking yokozuna sumo wrestler.

Michael Leitch of Japan scores a try. Photo / Photosport
Michael Leitch of Japan scores a try. Photo / Photosport

"He is thoroughly genuine in trying to reflect what the Japanese spirit is," Jamie Coventry, his long-term manager, says. "All the things that Japanese people see as being important as a good person Michael embodies. Integrity. Politeness. Respect. Toughness."

Leitch was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, but also spent parts of his childhood in Fiji. He loved the outdoors, in particular the pursuit of eeling.

Educated at St Bede's College, his first coach Richard Freeman remembers him more for his ferocious work-rate than being an outstanding talent. "I would not have pegged him as a superstar," says Freeman.

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In 2004, Leitch was offered a placement at Sapporo Yamanote High School, in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, by Mark Ealey, who is the director of St Bede's International Programme.

His son, Nick, was studying at Yamanote and when his coach asked him for any players he could recommend from New Zealand, Nick immediately proposed his childhood friend, Leitch, who jumped at the chance.

Even with a familiar face in Ealey alongside him, Leitch initially struggled to adapt in a foreign land where no one spoke English. The rugby culture was equally alien. Aside from Ealey, only two of Leitch's teammates had played rugby previously.

Matches were played on grassless pitches that left him covered in bruises. "He was super tough," says Nick, now the back-up fly-half to Dan Carter at Kobelco Steelers. "He loved to put his body on the line and that's the way he still plays now. He worked his arse off to get to where he is."


After leaving Yamanote, Leitch followed the traditional Japanese rugby pathway of enrolling at University in Tokyo. The athletic, rangy and teak tough back-rower came to the attention of the Japanese selectors.

Suddenly, Leitch had a decision to make. He had ties to both Fiji and New Zealand, but felt he owed a debt to Japan. Shortly after captaining Japan in the 2008 World Rugby Under-20 Championships, he made his senior debut against the United States.

Michael Leitch during Japan's match against Fiji. Photo / Photosport
Michael Leitch during Japan's match against Fiji. Photo / Photosport

He faced an even bigger dilemma when Eddie Jones asked him to become Japan captain in 2014. "Leitch originally thought that the Japanese captain should be Japanese," explains his predecessor, Toshiaki Hirose. "He did not know if it was a good idea or not. After one month, he decided to accept it."

Coventry says that part of his reasoning was that he wanted to change the perception of Japanese rugby. "A big driver for him was that in the past Japanese rugby has always been mocked for being weak and soft," Coventry said. "They were not taken seriously. With his time at University and in the Top League, he knows how tough the Japanese people are and he wanted to show that to the world."

That day came on September 19, 2015. Trailing South Africa 29-32 in injury time of their opening World Cup game, Japan were awarded a penalty in front of the posts to level the scores.

Jones was screaming from the coaches box to take the draw. Leitch took the scrum from which Karne Hesketh scored the try that changed everything.


It was not just his decision to go for the win, but if you look back at the footage you will see that he carried the ball three times in the build-up to the try. "That resonated a lot with Japanese people, especially business leaders - that willingness to make the big decision for the company and then the willingness to lead during that moment," Coventry said.

Even if Japan failed to qualify for the quarter-finals despite winning two further games, Leitch's celebrity was assured. Speaking perfect Japanese and unfailing polite, Leitch was quickly taken to the nation's heart. That is not a universal experience for others in one of the world's least racially diverse societies.

In 2015, Ariana Miyamoto, who has African-American heritage, was chosen as Miss Japan prompting a barrage of online criticism for selecting a "hafu", the Japanese term for mixed-race people. Miyamoto was used to the abuse. "In school, people used to throw rubbish at me," she said. In 2017, a government survey revealed that 30 per cent of non-Japanese respondents had been the target of discriminatory speech.

Leitch recognises that he can act as the vehicle for change. "My role this year is mainly being the captain, but behind that there is so much more I take responsibility for and – not prove a point – but help people have a better understanding of what it is to be a foreigner in Japan," Leitch told Reuters in an interview before the World Cup.

However far the Brave Blossoms progress, Leitch is also determined to ensure that Japanese rugby realises its full potential after this World Cup.

That means reforming the entire structure of junior rugby in Japan. "Michael puts a huge amount of pressure on himself to leave a legacy for Japanese rugby," Nick Ealey explains. "He is pushing for things to move in the right direction with the JRFU, a lot of off-field stuff. He will be the key to Japanese rugby moving forward."


That legacy goes back to Sapporo. Later this year, Norovsambuu Davaajav from Mongolia will enrol at Sapporo Yamanote before heading to St Bede's College. His scholarship has been paid for by Leitch, who was challenged by a Mongolian sumo wrestler to create a rugby player in his own image.

"The boy is starting from zero," Mark Ealey said. "The lad is tall, has a basketball and wrestling background and Michael says he is hungry. He wants him to become Mongolia's first rugby star."

Several close associates say that he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, which may explain Japan head coach Jamie Joseph's decision to keep fellow flanker Pieter Labuschagne as captain for Saturday's Pool A match against Samoa.

Coming off the bench against Ireland in the first half, Leitch helped turn the course of the match in Japan's shock 19-12 victory. As much as he can be seen as symbol, first and foremost he remains an outstanding rugby player.

He has shocked the world twice. The third act is yet to come.