Japan’s League One Rugby Interpreter Aims to Pass Along Charm of Import Players

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Interpreter Nao Yoshimizu, left, conveys the coach’s instructions to Shizuoka BlueRevs import players in Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture, last month.

YOKOHAMA — Nao Yoshimizu, who served as interpreter for Japan’s national team at the Rugby World Cup in France in autumn, has kicked off his new role as part of the language assistance staff for the Shizuoka BlueRevs, one of 12 first-division teams that make up League One, the top rugby organization in Japan.

Yoshimizu, 46, plays a role in helping the team’s import and Japanese players connect.

“I want people to know the charm of the unity of players who have origins of various countries,” he said ahead of the 2023-24 League One season opener on Saturday.

Yoshimizu, who hails from Kawasaki, couldn’t help but be influenced by his rugby-school-coaching father and started playing the sport at 4.

During his second year of junior high school, his family moved to New Zealand, a global rugby superpower.

Following his graduation from high school, he worked as an auto mechanic and eventually became the country’s lone Japanese police officer.

Overwhelmed by the physical and technical prowess of New Zealand players, Yoshimizu gave up his career as a player, but his connection with the sport continues.

When he was a mechanic in New Zealand, he once served as interpreter for the Sapporo Yamanote High School team during its tour to the country.

Michael Leitch, a New Zealand native who has been a key performer for the Brave Blossoms, was a student at the Sapporo high school at the time, and the now 35-year-old traveled to N.Z. as part of the tour.

“[Leitch] was so skinny back then,” recalled Yoshimizu, who said that catching up with Leitch again in autumn with the national team was very emotional.

And Yoshimizu said his six years as a police officer helps him in his current role.

“I learned how to get information out of others, and how to observe their thoughts and feelings from their gestures,” he said.

Yoshimizu found the job rewarding, but his passion for rugby and the encouragement of his acquaintances led him back to Japan in 2014, and he become an interpreter for a team in the Top League, the predecessor to League One.

In addition, after the World Cup in Japan in 2019, New Zealand native Jamie Joseph, who has been the coach of the Braves Blossoms, offered Yoshimizu the chance to be his “eyes and ears” with the national team. Yoshimizu readily accepted the offer from the 54-year-old.

Of the 33 members of Japan’s World Cup squad in France at the time of the opening of the event, 17 have overseas countries of origin that include Tonga, Fiji and South Korea.

Yoshimizu, who works in Japanese and English, emphasizes not only accuracy, but also the way of conveying the feelings of speakers.

He often takes liberties with his interpretations, as opposed to being literal, and sometimes mimics the tone of voice and body language of the speakers.

When Yoshimizu felt players wanted to convey something, he made an active effort to talk to them. He recalled that all the players were “like family,” sharing both joy and frustration.

Fans of League One will be able to see the top players from major global powers such as South Africa, which won back-to-back World Cup titles in France, and New Zealand, the RWC runner-up this year.

“Each [League One] team has great players. I hope people will come to the venues and experience the power of these marvelous players,” Yoshimizu said.