Masakatsu Hikosaka: "There is a lot of excitement in Japan around sevens"

The two-time men’s Olympian and Toyota Verblitz winger explains to Luke Norman why he believes rugby sevens in Japan is on the up again.

A thriving women’s game and a developing age-group structure underline the ever-growing appetite for sevens in Japan. All fans want and need now is for the men’s team to climb back to the top table, according to two-time men’s Olympian Masakatsu Hikosaka. 

He may be 33, have played top-level rugby for close to a decade, and share a training pitch on a daily basis with the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Beauden Barrett, but it only takes Hikosaka seconds to pinpoint a standout moment in his career. 

“We had never won against the All Blacks [Sevens]. We had done a lot of calculation and preparation towards that game and it all worked out for us,” he said of Japan’s victory against New Zealand in their opening men’s sevens pool-stage game at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. 

“It’s one of the biggest memories for me in rugby and one of the moments that I will look back on and be proud of when I finish playing.” 

Hikosaka and his team-mates went on to beat France in the quarter-final before finishing fourth. For an Olympics-mad nation, it was a huge moment. The men finally had a full-time squad and accompanying structure – and, with a home Olympic Games on the horizon, interest was at an all-time high.

Non-stop benefits of sevens

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, took much of the wind out of the billowing sails and despite winger Hikosaka being in fine try scoring form, the men’s team faded badly at Tokyo 2020. 

An 11th-placed finish was painful for all involved – with the women’s side, the Sakura Sevens ending 12th. But for Hikosaka, who moved on to 15s after the tournament, the benefits have been lasting. 

“Getting involved in international competitions at a young age really helped me with my confidence when playing 15s as well,” said the man who plays for Toyota Verblitz in Japan’s League One. “As a wing, there’s not actually a huge difference [between sevens and 15s] so definitely that similarity in terms of the two [formats] really helped me. 

“The level of fitness [required in sevens] is insane but there’s a lot of attacking in the wider space, so I really enjoyed it.”

Women leading the way

The men’s and women’s sides have both secured spots at this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris – “really important for us” according to Hikosaka – thanks to victories in their respective Asia Rugby qualifiers, hosted in Osaka last November. 

It is a launchpad for the next growth stage and the Sakura Sevens have already been taking advantage. The team ended the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023 with a fifth-place finish in the final leg in France and they have since been battling it out with the very best this season in the HSBC SVNS 2024 series. 

“There’s more attention in women’s Japanese rugby on sevens than 15s because we will participate in one of the biggest sporting events, the Olympics,” Hikosaka explained. 

“It [interest] will definitely increase and there’s already a lot of young athletes playing sevens and making it to the national team squad.” 

Social media helps. “It’s massive,” the winger said. “There are lots of highlights and try scoring on social media, the impact is pretty impressive.” 

Bright future

The men’s national team are currently plying their trade on the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger 2024 competition. Fifth in the first of three legs, the team is aiming to grab promotion back to SVNS via the Grand Final in Madrid, between 31 May and 2 June. 

“What is really important is that we participate in core competitions that get the most attention. If we can do that, the results will come,” Hikosaka stressed. 

While he admits that the team are perhaps a ‘step behind’ the top tier right now, the man who joined the national sevens squad from university is delighted by ongoing age-grade development in the game. Not only is there now a national Japan university sevens side, there’s also a high school one.

Hikosaka himself has maintained strong ties to the sevens game. An avid watcher, he and team-mate Barrett have spent plenty of time recently analysing just why men's HSBC SVNS 2024 series leaders Argentina are so good right now. Apparently, it’s all down to the perfect blend of consistent faces and youthful exuberance. 

“I do have a lot of love for sevens,” the smiling winger confirmed. 

By Luke Norman