Thousands of flag-waving rugby fans cheered Japan’s national team at a celebratory parade in Tokyo on Wednesday, hailing the Brave Blossoms’ best-ever World Cup performance.
The hosts reached the quarterfinals for the first time at this year’s World Cup, bagging stunning wins over Six Nations sides Scotland and Ireland before a gutsy last-eight loss to South Africa.
Their performance won the heart of a nation hooked on baseball and sumo — with supporters packing out fanzones and millions tuning in to watch a sport that has a relatively small fanbase in Japan.
On Wednesday, excited fans cheered as the players, led by captain Michael Leitch, walked through a downtown Tokyo street fringed with yellow ginkgo trees and high-rise buildings.
“I’m surprised to see so many people here, and I’m very happy to see that we were able to make such a great impact on Japan,” said Leitch.
The crowds packed out the 800-metre (2,600-feet) route through the sleek Marunouchi business and shopping district.
“It’s a great feeling that so many rugby fans are gathered here,” said Koji Kabuki, a 48-year-old salaryman in Tokyo, wearing the red-and-white uniform of the Brave Blossoms.
“I hope to see rugby become popular among the younger generation,” said Kabuki, who himself played the sport as a university student.
Masae Honma, 51, was in town from Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo.
“I’m so delighted to have had a close-up look at players, now I know how tall they are.”
“Honestly, I wasn’t interested in (rugby), but after watching the historic (tournament) moments I became a fan of rugby, and now I think it is a great sport,” she said.
The World Cup was widely hailed as a success, and the Japan squad’s slogan “One Team” was chosen as one of most memorable buzzwords of the year in Japan.