By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) - When an estimated 400,000 rugby fans descend on Japan later this year for the Rugby World Cup, finding a place to quench their thirst will not be a problem. Finding a bar to watch the game, however, could be.
Government figures show that while Tokyo has 217 bars per 100,000 people, the majority are 'izakayas', informal Japanese-style pubs where customers sit on the floor, at tables or at the bar to eat, drink and chat.
Watching live sport at an izakaya would be an alien concept to many and several of these establishments told Reuters they had no intention of screening games during the Sept. 20 to Nov. 2 rugby showpiece.
Hiroshi Matthews, who spent much of his childhood in Australia, says he loves not having the distraction of live sport blaring from a television when he is out with friends.
"I like that we meet in izakayas just to talk and don't have to worry about people shouting at the television or listening to the commentary," he said on a night out with three friends.
"I am a big basketball fan but I prefer to watch games at home, where I can fully concentrate on them."
While some businesses are sticking their heads in the sand, others are rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of cashing in on one of world sport's biggest events.
A study commissioned by Japan Rugby 2019 last year predicted the tournament could deliver nearly 216.6 billion JPY ($1.9 billion) of additive value to the Japanese economy.
Tsuyoshi Ohta, the president of a nationwide chain of British-style pubs that regularly show international sport, said 'Hub' had learned from Japan's experience during the football World Cup in 2002 and that their 107 venues across the country were taking steps to prepare for the influx of rugby fans.
"We found that foreigners drink in the daytime, not like us who drink at night, usually at izakaya-style bars," Ohta told Reuters in an interview. "We don’t have that kind of culture.
"So we have decided to open the store from noon and we would like to offer a casual setting for people to drink from lunchtime."
Ohta also highlighted figures that showed Hub venues make 80 percent of their sales on drinks while at izakayas that figure is only 40 percent.
In preparation for the seven-week tournament, Hub has encouraged their staff to join an English language program and is opening a new venue just for the tournament in Fukuoka, which will host three World Cup matches, said Ohta.
A TURNING POINT
While football World Cups are often marred by fan violence, the rugby equivalent typically passes off without major incident and Ohta said there was a clear difference in the atmosphere at Hubs during the screening of the sports.
"Fans who come and watch rugby games are, in general, gentlemen and they are more likely to clap their opponents too. I don't see that kind of scenario during soccer games," said Ohta.
"I have seen a lot of people come to watch rugby games and I realised they are gentlemen. So, how they drink will be gentle as well.
"I am not really worried about bad behaviour as much as I was when we have the soccer games."
By bringing the Rugby World Cup to Asia for the first time, those at the top of the game hope it will ignite interest in the sport across the world's most populous continent and open up new revenue streams.
Some 25 million people in Japan watched their Brave Blossoms team play against Samoa at the 2015 World Cup but World Rugby hope to smash that record at the 2019 tournament.
Establishing a Super Rugby team in Tokyo, the Sunwolves, was another move aimed at gaining a foothold in a potentially lucrative market and some fans think the World Cup could have a huge impact on not just the sport but how people enjoy it.
"It could change how people want to watch sport," said Hiro Takeda, part of a small group of die-hard Sunwolves fans watching their team on television at a Hub near the club’s Chichibunomiya Stadium.
"It is better to watch together and I am looking ahead to watching with people visiting for the Rugby World Cup."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)