Japan will be hosting the Rugby World Cup games next year — a first for the country. For Japanese rugby fans, this will be a historic and much-awaited occasion. But equally wonderful is how Japanese rugby and the nation’s sports world in general has become more open to foreign players, providing Japanese sports professionals with more opportunities to work with athletes on an international level.
Masataka Ishiguro is a good example. He’s the chief medical trainer of the Hino Red Dolphins, Japan’s top league team owned by Hino Motors. Ishiguro has been working for the team since 2017. Before that, he was with Kobelco Steelers, arguably Japan’s most prominent and best-loved rugby team. In spite of this coveted position, Ishiguro says that prior to taking these jobs he was never really into rugby.
“I’m a soccer guy, always have been,” smiles the 40-year old. “But the medical training profession isn’t about choosing a sport, it’s about bringing safety and training excellence to whatever team I belong to. It’s also about doing my bit for the sports community as a whole.”
Ishiguro got his medical trainer’s license in the U.S., where he had studied since high school. His parents had sent Ishiguro and his sister to Pennsylvania so they could learn English and be exposed to an international environment at an early age. Ishiguro stayed for university and graduated school in Florida, where he specialized in athletic training and sports medicine. That’s not as easy as it may sound — athletic training is a highly competitive field, with exams and internships required at every level before graduation.
“But the rewards are there,” says Ishiguro. Back in Japan, doors started opening. He modestly describes it as “being in the right place at the right time” but it took years of study and experience to get there.
“It really helped that I studied sports training and medicine in English,” says Ishiguro. “Ultimately, I think my English skills got me to this point.
“The sports world is becoming more progressive and borderless by the day,” adds Ishiguro. “For both Japanese athletes and support staff, the ability to speak English and having an open mind are imperative for team-building. My job is to make sure each player can reach his full potential on the field.”
There are now 12 foreign players in the Hino Red Dolphins and Ishiguro says communicating in English makes them feel more relaxed.
“Everyone is here to win, and everyone is super excited about the World Cup. I feel blessed to be able to share all that.”
“When I first joined the Red Dolphins, I was the only trainer who could speak English,” recalls Ishiguro. “But it was a time when the Japanese rugby world was opening its doors wide to foreign players and team owners were really feeling a need for English-speaking staff.”
Indeed, at the last World Cup, the Japan team wouldn’t have had their historic winning streak without the presence of foreign-born players, not to mention Australian-born head coach Eddie Jones at the helm.
“Speaking as a medical trainer, it’s very, very hard for Japanese rugby players to go head-to-head against a foreign team,” says Ishiguro. “Rugby is a different sport from soccer or baseball in that physicality is a major part of it. Japanese rugby players are tiny compared to their foreign counterparts. Imagine being out there on the field, and everyone is larger and quicker, coming at you with the full force of their weight and strength.”
Ishiguro says this makes his job a huge challenge.
“I have to make sure every player optimizes their practice time and reaches their goals. I have to communicate with each and every one of them so that the team and I are all on the same page.
“People think that throwing the best 15 players into the team is all that matters, but it doesn’t really work that way. It’s about being in this together, knowing each other and building trust. In short, it’s about communication.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words I tell myself
石黒正高 (いしぐろ まさたか)