Otaki girl Pounamu Mackay adjusts to life in Japan on rugby scholarship

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Pounamu Mackay playing rugby in Japan.

You would think moving from small-town Ōtaki to Kashiwa, a city of 414,000 people an hour out of Japan’s capital, would be a big culture shock.

But Pounamu Mackay (Ngāti Raukawa) is taking it in her stride as she adapts to life at Reitaku High School in Japan on a rugby scholarship.

“It was actually a lot smoother transition than I could’ve hoped for,” Pounamu said.

“When we initially got off the plane it was a bit rocky as we had to wait 7-8 hours to get out of the airport due to Covid-19 and all that jazz.

Reitaku High School students at rugby training in Japan.
Reitaku High School students at rugby training in Japan.

“The worst part about it was that we had no clue what we were waiting for, but we were received so warmly by our teachers and coaches, it made up for it.”

Receiving a three-year rugby scholarship, cut down to two years because of Covid-19 delays, Pounamu and Jordyn Tihore (Ngāti Porou) from Te Araroa, Gisborne, finally headed to Japan at the start of April with LRB Sports scholarships worth $ 100,000.

Playing at number 12 or as a halfback in union, most tournaments Pounamu has been playing in Japan are 7s tournaments where she has been playing hooker and halfback but enjoys playing in the backline.

The scholarship covers tuition, accommodation, food and pocket money, Pounamu said: “Our main conditions are to play rugby, go to school and follow school morals, which they [the Japanese] hold quite dearly “.

While the culture is very different to New Zealand in some ways, Pounamu said respect for their elders is similar but their work ethic is greater.

Pounamu Mackay playing in Japan.
Pounamu Mackay playing in Japan.

“I’ve never seen a nation so driven when it comes to everything. They are always on time, always respectful and hard workers.”

Living in a dorm with the other rugby girls, Pounamu and Jordyn opted to be part of mainstream classes rather than with other international students so they could be in class with their teammates.

“We live in the girls’ dorm with the majority of the senior rugby girls.

“On our first day of school we had a lot of curious students come and stand by our classroom door to look at us and a lot of people come up to us to say hello, which was nice.”

Now settling into life in Japan, Pounamu said the biggest shock was the number of hours the Japanese work.

“We’ve got a relatively early rise at 6.30am where we have 15 minutes to get ready for a morning run to the courtyard where we do morning exercises.”

Pounamu Mackay with girls from New Zealand and Australia whom she met on a camp in Fukuoka, Japan.
Pounamu Mackay with girls from New Zealand and Australia whom she met on a camp in Fukuoka, Japan.

Everything is scheduled – breakfast is at 7am, 7.30am they get ready for school, 8.05am they leave for school and from 8.15am to 8.45am is self-directed study before school starts.

School days vary from seven to eight hours long, with a half-day on Saturday.

After school, they help with cleaning before heading to the school field to begin training or jump on a bus to the gym.

“After training we have self-training for 30 minutes, but I swear the girls are there training way longer.”

Back at the dorm, the girls have an attendance check before a night meeting with their dorm teacher.

“I’ll be honest, I have no clue what he’s talking about as it’s all in Japanese, but nonetheless we still sit there and listen.

“We then have mandatory study from 8.45pm to 9.45pm and then straight after study we have more cleaning so by the time we’re allowed to go to bed it’s 10pm.

“It was a bit rough at the start but we’re getting used to the busy life. I actually prefer it.”

While the days are long and structured, Pounamu said because she doesn’t understand a lot of Japanese, she doesn’t study much in school.

“When we aren’t training or studying we try to catch up on sleep – whether that’s in class or in our dorms.

“We didn’t create the habit of sleeping in class – we were quite shocked to look up on our first day of school and see that half the class had their heads down dozing off.

“I could say we’ve adapted quite well to that aspect of Japanese life.”

Pounamu is still deciding what her goal as an athlete is, with her greater dream to be a coach involved with the tactical side of the game.

“I love how complicated the game is and how you have to use your brain to manipulate your competition – it’s definitely not a sport where you can just jump in without knowing how it works.

“My ultimate rugby dream would be to coach a high-level team.

“I love the analysis of a game and working to make individuals better at their chosen sports.

“It would be nice to be a professional rugby player and I’d love to make the Olympic 7s team but I think my ultimate goal would be to help others get there.”

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