From The Vaults

11 December 2023
Japan’s Auntie Rugby

Established in 1952, IWATAYA is a Japanese golf equipment manufacturer, but its origin can be traced back 101 years. In this article Hideki Shoji explores the company's long history and its links to the sport of rugby.

IWATAYA is a Japanese golf equipment manufacturer, and its retail shop is located in Marunouchi, a business district that lies between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace. Established in 1952, the company celebrated its 70th anniversary last year, and continues to flourish, attracting the businesspeople of all stripes who flock to the shop to savour IWATAYA's finest masterworks for their favourite sport.

IWATAYA has a long history. In fact, its origin can be traced back 101 years. The precursor of the company was a small sporting goods shop, which was opened in Kyoto by a woman, named Ishi Fukui.

The IWATAYA sitting in the corner of a busy street of central Kyoto, displayed with Silcock's rugby balls and other merchandise imported from Hong Kong, fascinated a stream of people coming and going. One of the passersby who was mesmerized by the luxurious rugby items at the shop window was Keisuke Tanimura, a Kyoto University student and captain of the recently formed RFC (KURFC). Naturally Tanimura was tempted to enter the shop for appreciation of the rugby feast. Setting foot in the place, he was dazzled by a range of immaculate merchandise all jammed in together. When leaving the shop, he boldly asked Ishi for cooperation to his underfunded Club. After Tanimura's visit, his teammates frequented Ishi's shop one after another begging the shop owner at every opportunity for favoured procurement of the rugby gear.

As Ishi's relation with the students became closer, because of her strong empathy for them, camaraderie started to be nurtured in her mind. Caring and big-hearted, Ishi in no way spared the necessary support for development of the KURFC. Much adored by the youngsters, she was affectionately called "Auntie Rugby."

In the late 1930s Ishi expanded her business. After relocating to Tokyo in 1928, she opened a second shop in Kagurazaka in 1936. An IWATAYA pocket-sized rugby gear catalogue 1937, of which illustrations and lettering were presumably drawn by Ishi herself, delicately depicts, with full of hand-crafted feel, her original products. According to the literature, an original rugby ball is priced at \8.00 (public employee's starting salary = \75.00), while jersey made of cotton is priced at \2.30, 100% pure wool at \6.60. The catalogue also shows white shorts (\1.80), leather headgear (\3.00), practice top and bottom (\2.20 and \2.60), and tackle machine with a hanging dummy (\140.00 incl. installation fee).

Ishi and her youngest daughter, Michiko, who had been evacuated from Tokyo to the countryside, survived the war. Ishi's two sons were killed in action successively in South East Asia. IWATAYA in Kagurazaka burned down in the air raid of May 1945, three months before the end of the war.

Despite having been devastated by the death of her children, Ishi, amidst the post-war turmoil nonetheless, struggled desperately to earn a living, and she lived a strong life. She rented 3.5 square meters of land from a Kinokuniya Book Store (currently Books Kinokuniya) in Shinjuku and built a shack utilizing debris, where shabby bamboo blinds are said to have been propped against the wall. Under such harsh circumstances, Ishi, with renewed determination, and receiving cordial support from the pre-war suppliers, restarted the sporting goods business.

Ishi worked tirelessly, rain or shine. After a while, she hired Junichi Ito, 18, a young rugby enthusiast who had worked part-time at IWATAYA before the war worsened. Ishi took charge of customer service at the counter and responding to orders. Junichi, never one to shirk hard work, delivered the orders and was responsible for purchasing goods.

"Goods of every description were in short supply. It was a time when anything could be sold as long as the goods were displayed…Some of my rugby friends from college helped us receive orders. Even the former opponents whom I had played against came to our shop and kindly introduced some corporate customers to us, nostalgically saying in an amiable tone 'You beat us up a lot in the matches, didn't you? Your side completely pulverized us!' Thanks to the rugby fraternity, a lot of orders came rolling in," recalls Junichi in an article published in 1960.

According to a Shinjuku Business Directory 1953, IWATAYA, once a ramshackle shop built out of the post-war ruins by Ishi Fukui and run all on her own, successfully developed into a limited partnership company. It is also recorded that their business was established on August 20, 1947, represented jointly by Ishi and Junichi with 12 employees, based at Kinokuniya Book Store, exactly the same place where Ishi had thrown herself into her work after the war to make ends meet.

Upon entering the 60s the streets of Tokyo were vibrant with banners and posters of the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics 1964. Keeping up with the burgeoning market for sporting goods businesses, IWATAYA, one of the basement tenants of Kinokuniya Building, responded proactively to various consumer needs. An account in 'Shinjuku 100 Shops' May 1964 issue introduces the shop as follows: "IWATAYA boasts of a broad range of sporting goods. In the winter, ski equipment is the main product, and in the spring, rugby and hiking equipment are the main items. Particular emphasis is placed on rugby equipment and sports shoes, and the shop is proud to have a great selection of athletic footwear."

In the autumn of 2019, 97 years after IWATAYA was opened in Kyoto, Ishi's humble contribution to Japanese rugby was unfolded by the media and the featured story was well received by the Japanese rugby community.

According to the online article posted by Kyoto Newspaper, Ishi might have been the creator of the Japan international jersey with three cherry blossom buds, which was first worn during Canada tour in 1930. The writer introduced a testimony to Ishi's feat, citing an interview with her grandson, Kenichi Takada, 70, i.e. son of Junichi and Michiko.

Takada testifies; "I hear the first emblem of Japan jerseys was designed by my grandmother. My grandmother started a business all by herself. By nature, she was skillful at drawing and painting. She also designed some university jerseys. She was close to head coach of Meiji University RFC. While my mother was telling my grandmother's story, I heard about the emblem of the Japan jerseys."

According to the online article, Ishi enjoyed cigarettes and whiskey all through life and passed away in May 1993, aged 101.

The name of Ishi Fukui and IWATAYA may not take centre stage in the history of Japanese rugby. But it would be meaningful to remember the legacy unassumingly left by a strong woman who lived more than a century.

About the Author - Hideki Shoji is a translator of electronic components at a local company in Tsuruoka, Japan. He is a collector of rugby memorabilia and researcher on the history of Japanese rugby. He plays wing/fullback at Harbor Blacks, a local club in Sakata city.