The first Men’s Roller Derby World Cup in Birmingham in 2014 will be remembered as much for its remarkable underdogs as the inevitable progression of sides such as England, Canada and the eventual winners, USA.
Argentina surprised everybody to reach the knockout stages with some fantastic performances throughout the weekend, despite taking only eight skaters to the tournament.
Their off-skates stories, including a marriage proposal during the final and a surprise fundraising appeal, further helped to write the team into roller derby folklore.
The Ninjapan Rollers though were, undoubtedly, the stars of the show; a hit out of left field that took everybody at Futsal on an emotional rollercoaster.
Even before the tournament started there was a palpable hype around the team, from the curiosity around Roller Game to the rumours that they’d shipped body armour to England.
And who can forget the opening ceremony? A riotous entrance with leg whips galore that had the entire crowd bouncing and left Umesan with a pair of broken skates.
Come the tournament proper it seemed that every fan in Futsal cheered every point won by Japan.
“The entire crowd is on their side, even our fans are on their side; I think even our bench coach was on their side!” exclaimed Ireland’s Lt. Damn at the time.
Then there was the impromptu coaching behind the scenes from other skaters and a noticeable improvement in each of their five games, on top of the fevered rush to bag their merchandise, which sold out in thirty minutes.
Now the Ninjapan Rollers are preparing to do it all over again at the 2016 World Cup in Calgary next month, so what better time than now to catch up on their story with skater Keisuke Otsuki (#99)?
Life after 2014
“We are so glad to inform you that all of us are still going strong,” Kei reveals. “In fact, we also have an additional six new members to our team.”
“After the World Cup we held a lot of promotional activities, training and bouts to keep up our motivation and increase our exposure, and this led to the increase in number of our supporters and team members,” he continues.
Looking back on that first tournament in 2014, Kei explains that: “We experienced and felt the excitement that we couldn’t even imagine in Japan.
“We were so touched by the supportive and dedicated, warm attitude of the organisers, supporting staff, audience and the participating team members [from other nations].
“In addition to that [attitude] making a lasting impression on us, our participation also inspired and deeply motivated each one of us to keep going strong and to continue to play and promote roller derby in Japan, where this sport hasn’t gained mass recognition yet.”
Kei goes on: “Not only did the skaters that were selected for the World Cup develop personally, but their experiences also helped to prepare the new members that follow the sport and decided to join the team and help them train them for their next participation.”
It’s not all been plain sailing though, as can often be the way with minority sports, but the internet has helped to fill in some of the gaps created by the lack of direct learning opportunities.
“Unfortunately, in the absence of another men’s team in the country, to build up tactics from practice sessions has been difficult.
“However each member has carefully observed and learnt new tactics from watching videos of trainings and bouts from other countries and improvised and built their tactics accordingly.”
Growth in Japan
While roller derby fans responded to Japan’s appearance in England with an outpouring of love and respect, it didn’t quite catapult the sport into the limelight back home.
However the experience two years ago did set them up to make slow and steady progress, armed with new skills and knowledge acquired from skating with the world’s best in Birmingham.
“There wasn’t an overnight change in the mass perception of roller derby after our participation,” says Kei, “but we surely managed to steadily increase the number of people interested in the game.
“We have been constantly engaged and focused on promotional activities and have managed to make our presence felt on several occasions in Japanese media, apart from the dedicated viewership on the social networking sites.
“Also recently the women’s tournament was held in Japan, which further increased the media presence of derby in Japan.”
That was the Japan Open in Okinawa in March 2016; not only Japan’s first roller derby tournament but also the first in Asia.
It featured 10 women’s teams, including six from Japan, plus sides from Adelaide (Aus), Auckland (NZ), Alaska (USA) and Copenhagen (Den), and officials from around the world.
Although a women’s tournament, it still benefited the men’s game by helping to forge links between the men’s and women’s teams.
“It was really a big deal for us that the women’s tournament was held here in Japan,” remarks Kei.
“As the men’s team we couldn’t do much directly during the time of the tournament.
“However after the tournament we were able to bond with them and organise a bout between Ninjapan Rollers and the women’s mixed team.
“It was a really meaningful and an overall great experience for both the teams. We now aim to hold a men’s tournament in the same way as the women’s tournament soon.”
2016 World Cup
Before they can think about holding a men’s tournament in Japan though there is the small matter of the World Cup in Calgary, which starts on 21 July with a game between hosts Canada and Germany.
With all 15 of the teams who appeared in 2014 returning to the World Cup in Calgary – alongside six new teams – this year’s tournament will prove a great opportunity to assess their progress.
The Ninjapan Rollers are understandably excited and they look forward to testing themselves against the rest of the world in a group that includes Finland, Ireland, Mexico, Scotland and the defending champions, USA.
When questioned about how they feel ahead of the World Cup, Kei is quick to add that: “I want to share the pride we feel of being the only representatives from Asia in this World Cup.
“We want to focus on our objective this time to win as many games as we can, with the teamwork that has evolved since the last tournament two years ago, and also become a team that is well loved by everyone in the World Cup.
“For this purpose, all the team members are united and practising as one.”
There’s little doubt that Japan will have a legion of followers at this tournament.
They recently revealed their line-up for the World Cup with a video on Facebook which, at the time of writing, had amassed over 15,000 views and 160 shares.
Kei and his teammates will look to marry the energy and support of the crowd in Calgary with their own strengthened roster.
In their previous outing the Rollers lost their five games with only 11 skaters, but will be taking a bigger squad this time, along with a number of support staff.
“We are a big and strong 23 member contingent, comprised of 15 skaters, five supporting staff members and three permanent staff members” says Kei.
Another theme that ran throughout the 2014 World Cup was of it being the first global coming together of men’s roller derby teams and the legacy that it would leave for many of those teams who were still in their infancy.
It was essentially a three day, hyper-intense boot camp and the Calgary edition is also seen by Kei as an opportunity for Ninjapan Rollers to develop further, take ideas and contacts back to Japan and point the game in the right direction for the future.
“We are really excited to learn and build our knowledge and skills related to roller derby in addition to communicating and building stronger bonds with all the participating countries,” he explains.
“We also think that our participation in this tournament is a big step towards our future goal of association with the MRDA.”
And this is the beauty of these international gatherings, where superstars mix with debutants, where officials can also learn from each other and where fans can meet other likeminded souls; a global melting pot that fires dozens more little derby revolutions.
“We think that it will eventually influence the overall growth of roller derby in Japan,” concludes Kei, “and it will drive us to create a niche for ourselves and this beautiful sport.”