South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar is presented with the William Webb Ellis Trophy by then president Nelson Mandela after the Springboks defeated New Zealand to win the Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park in 1995. Photo: African News Agency (ANA) Archives
South Africa is one of the world’s greatest rugby nations. Yesterday, Capetonians enjoyed a special Sunday with a double-header ahead of the Super Rugby series at a packed Cape Town Stadium, with thousands of people dressed up as their favourite superhero.

The passion and joy we saw expressed yesterday by a broad spectrum of citizens, young and old, is testimony to the fact that South Africa is a nation which truly loves its national sport.

When the SAA 747 passenger jet with “Good Luck Bokke” written underneath flew just overhead at Ellis Park in 1995, I was in the stadium. Joel Stransky took the historical drop goal late in extra time of the match, which overwhelmed the entire stadium, resulting in roaring cheers.

I remember the moment when then president Nelson Mandela, wearing a No 6 Springbok jersey, proudly presented the Webb Ellis World Cup trophy to Francois Pienaar; and when the streets of the country were filled with thousands of elated South Africans of all races, pointing one figure in the air in celebration of being No 1; hearing voices from the radio express sentiments such as “I now proudly feel I am part of the new South Africa”.

The elated emotion and excitement was so dramatic and infectious, I felt truly fortunate to have shared in those precious moments in South African history. I was amazed by what sport can do: how it can inspire people with positive power, impacting the whole country.

Mandela said: “Sport has the power to change the world. Where the rules of the game are the same for everyone and behaviour is guided by fair play and good sportsmanship. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.

“Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. Sport is the game of lovers.”

South Africa is a great rugby nation, which has proved these words to be true.

The Japanese national team also participated in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. The All Blacks defeated Japan 147-17 in Bloemfontein, even though they played without the unstoppable late Jonah Lomu. 147 remains the highest score in Rugby World Cup history.

Despite the defeat, I cheered for Japan, waving the largest flag in the stadium until the last minute and, to my surprise, the whole stadium was cheering for Japan. At that time we could not imagine Japan would ever host the Rugby World Cup. We have come a long way.

Japan have been keenly learning through exposure and interaction with top countries like South Africa.

Japan’s best performance thus far, of course, has been in the previous Rugby World Cup in 2015, when they beat the mighty Springboks 34-32 in their first pool match, in what was described as "the greatest shock in the history of the Rugby World Cup”.

It was an incredible and humbling moment for Japan, which raised our spirits and love for the sport to an unprecedented level. It has led to the opportunity for Japan to be exposed to Super Rugby, the top rugby league in the world.

That match may be a bitter memory for many South Africans, but we have never encountered any negative reactions, which I am convinced is due to the level of sportsmanship in this country. South Africa is a great rugby nation, which we will always respect.

This year, it is our turn to welcome South Africans to Japan. It is a great honour and privilege to host the Rugby World Cup for the first time and have the opportunity to welcome countries from all over the world.

The Japanese Consulate in Cape Town, which turned 100 years old last year, is already experiencing more enquiries about visas and World Cup travel, and we expect these to increase.

We would like South Africans to take this opportunity to visit Japan and experience a warm welcome in true Omotenashi (hospitality) spirit.

Japanese consul in Cape Town Yasushi Naito (left) waves his country’s flag at the Japan vs All Blacks match at Bloemfontein Stadium in 1995, when the whole crowd backed Japan in spite of their record-breaking 147-17 defeat. Photo: Supplied

The Rugby World Cup period (September 20 to November 2) will be Japanese autumn and, as it gets nearer to the final, our lush mountains will turn into a picturesque tapestry of beautiful red, yellow and orange hues, from the northern regions to the south.

Do enjoy the Japanese food, not only sushi and ramen, but try a variety of Washoku Japanese cuisine in local towns.

Matches will be played in 14 stadiums throughout Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu. It is an honour for Japan to host the friendly match just before the opening of the World Cup tournament between the Springboks and Japan on September 6, and the Parliamentary Rugby World Cup takes place from September 13 to 20 at the foot of Mount Fuji, when we welcome the South African parliamentary team.

Following the opening on September 20, we eagerly await the game between the Springboks and the All Blacks on September 21 in Yokohama Stadium. After six weeks of excitement, people from around the world will watch the final on November 2, again at Yokohama Stadium (many hope it will be between the same teams that play on September 21).

Adding to the excitement in the latter half of the year, Japan will also be hosting the G20 summit (June 28 to 29 in Osaka) and other ministerial meetings, and the seventh summit of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad 7) in Yokohama from August 28 to 30.

The enthronement of the new emperor takes place on May 1 (ceremony for foreign dignitaries on October 22). I encourage you to visit Japan to experience a new dawn as Japan enters its new era.

If you can’t make it to Japan, the Japanese Consulate is hosting a special rugby-themed Japan Day 2019 to get you into Rugby World Cup fever. Our annual cultural festival will be held at Oude Libertas Slow Market on Saturday March 16 (9am to 3pm).

You can rub shoulders with rugby personalities and enjoy the planned activities, browse travel information, meet Japanese businesses at the Japanese Business Pavilion and, above all, experience elements of Japanese culture and food.

The performances on the day include aikido, karate, judo, kenjutsu, kyudo (archery), shakuhachi (flute), koto (harp) and cosplay.

You can also enjoy gaming and Manga, a kids’ zone, tea ceremony, Japanese food village and cooking demonstration. Exhibitions include bonsai, bonsan (miniature moss garden), koi fish, ikebana and mokuhanga (woodblock print). You can also try your hand at calligraphy, origami, butterfly art, Go, yukata and kimono. There’ll be something for everyone in the family to experience as we offer Capetonians a taste of Japan ahead of this year’s Rugby World Cup.

We’re also excited for the match on June 8, when the Stormers play the Sunwolves at Newlands - another pre-World Cup event in Cape Town. We cherish the friendly relationship that has developed between the two teams over the Sunwolves’ three-year journey in Super Rugby.

Japan has drawn inspiration from South Africa’s love for rugby for a long time. Following the week of the Rugby World Cup final in 1995, Mandela arrived in Tokyo on his state visit to Japan.

Mandela surprised protocol officers on the tarmac when he appeared in a Springbok jersey. This was his own initiative to share the unfading excitement and sense of achievement of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

People in Japan were also moved by the Hollywood movie Invictus. The Japanese should learn that rugby can inspire people, and can change nations and the course of people’s lives.

We know the poem Invictus by William Henley was dear to Mandela: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul”.

Having been inspired by South Africa, Japan will follow its path and, in its own way, provide an exciting two months full of drama and inspiration.

* Naito is the consul of Japan in Cape Town, and has served as a Japanese diplomat in South Africa for 19 years intermittently since 1987