TOKYO, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Japan will head into the opening match of the Rugby World Cup against Russia on Friday with the support of a nation keen to make their mark on the world stage by hosting an immaculate tournament and seeing their team succeed on the field.
They will be led onto the field at Tokyo Stadium by talismanic captain Michael Leitch, who has become the face of Japanese rugby thanks to his inspirational leadership and world class performances.
Leitch, who moved to the northern island of Hokkaido from New Zealand aged 15, leads a squad packed with players born abroad who have adopted Japan as their home.
Sixteen of Jamie Joseph’s 31-man World Cup squad were born outside of Japan, including those from South Africa, New Zealand, Tonga and South Korea.
It is a diverse group who are helping to challenge Japan’s traditional self-image as a racially homogenous country.
That Leitch, 190 centimetres tall with mixed New Zealand and Fijian heritage, is the face of Japanese rugby is a sign of the changing times in a country which has resisted immigration and can be indifferent towards foreigners.
Leitch is proud to lead such a diverse group of players.
“I am very, very proud to be the captain of the Japanese rugby team,” he said on Wednesday. “We have got a very diverse side with a lot of foreign influence.
“I am very proud to be part of the World Cup and to be their captain.”
Leitch was a try-scoring hero of his country’s famous victory over South Africa at the last World Cup four years ago, which helped change perceptions of the sport in Japan.
Since then participation and viewing numbers have gone up and Japanese rugby is keen to capitalise on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave a lasting legacy in the country.
Leitch is keen to play his part in building on the 2015 win over the Springboks.
“In 2015, everyone expected us to lose. Even the Japanese public expected us to lose,” he said.
“So when we beat South Africa all eyes were on us so the next game against Scotland we had 30 million people watching Japan versus Scotland.
“Although we lost, we inspired Japan and this time round, at a home World Cup, we have the opportunity to inspire Japan again.” (Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Ken Ferris)