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14th Aug 2019

The inspiring Japanese women who fought for their right to play rugby

“People labeled women who played rugby as vulgar.”

As a commuter train flashes through Tokyo, a female athlete sprints alongside. Inside a family home, a woman looks on dismayed as she turns from the image of a pretty Geisha on television to see her own daughter, muscular and sweating, as she lifts a makeshift weight. In an office, a uniformed girl with bandaged fingers accidentally spills some of the tea she’s pouring for a stern businessman – then flashes him a smile that shows the teeth that she’s lost on the rugby pitch.

The new ad from Guinness gives a glimpse into Tokyo in 1989, and celebrates the women who defied cultural expectations and traditional stereotypes to play the game they loved. It’s impactful – and it’s a true story…

Guinness’ new ‘Made of More’ ad tells the story of pioneering female rugby players

The ad centres around the Liberty Fields Rugby Football club, and a behind-the-scenes film reveals the stories of the real women behind it. Founder Noriko Kishida explains that the club was set up at a time when Japanese society was accepting of discrimination against women.

“It was back in the day when getting harassed sexually and otherwise was a given. Men expected women to be young, pretty and willing to quit their jobs for marriage.”

In 1988, the Japanese Ruby Football Union refused to let women play ruby under their banner, saying that the sport was too dangerous for them. So, the pioneering players formed a union of their own, and Liberty Fields began notching up the wins.

“I was in love from the get go,” says one of the former players, while a former team-mate remembers how she would wake up at 2am the morning of training session, such was her excitement about playing.

The original Liberty Fields players tell their story

In 1991, the team entered the first ever Women’s Rugby World Cup, but the players say that even then they were not supported in the workplace – or by wider society which prized ‘ladylike’ women.

“People would say the most horrible things. But I was so proud of how hard I worked. At the office and on the field. So I refused to let their words get to me.”

With a bruising loss to France in the opening game of the tournament – where one Japanese player suffered a broken collarbone just minutes into the game – came the realisation that the women of other nations were playing at a much higher level. However, this just served to further inspire the Japanese players.

“The fact that all these women in the world played rugby gave me courage.”

The Liberty Fields players in action in the club’s early years

Now a widely accepted global sport, the last Women’s Rugby World Cup was played here in Ireland in 2017 – the best attended event in the tournament’s history. The men’s tournament takes place in Japan this November, while the world’s female rugby stars will be compete for the game’s biggest prize in New Zealand in 2021.

Former Irish International Lynne Cantwell, who is the Chair of Sport Ireland’s Women in Sport committee, says that although times have changed in the 30 years since Liberty Fields was formed, today’s sportswomen still face some of the same barriers highlighted in this latest Guinness ‘Made of More’ ad.

“Women’s sport has made significant strides in recent years. It has become much more visible yet plenty of barriers remain not just in terms of getting women involved and staying involved, but also perception. The story of “Liberty Fields” rings true to this day and shines a welcome spotlight not just on the obstacles to be overcome but the many benefits society stands to gain from overcoming them and creating a more inclusive and diverse culture in sport and beyond.”