Katsuhiko Oku

Katsuhiko Oku (1958 – 2003) and London Japanese

By Reg Clark – October 2017

Katsuhiko Oku

Katsu was born in Takarazuka in Hyogo Prefecture. He attended Itami High School where he was a prominent schoolboy rugby player in the Kansai before moving on to Waseda University where he studied politics and economics.  In his first two years at Waseda he was a member of the university rugby club and played for the 1st XV.  After a bad head injury however he didn’t play rugby in his last two years – he later said it was a blessing in disguise as he was able to concentrate on his studies, as a result of which he was successful in entering Gaimusho.  Early in his career he was sent to Hertford College, Oxford to join the university’s special two year course for international diplomats – from 1981 to 1983. At this stage he was already married, having met his future wife Emiko at Waseda.

At that point Katsu decided to take the risk of playing rugby again, as a result of which he became the first Japanese national ever to represent the Blues XV at Oxford – playing on the wing.  He was a very popular figure amongst his teammates and made many lifelong friendships at Oxford.  It was at this point that I met Katsu for the first time – I had left Oxford in 1980 to play rugby for Kobe Steel and on a business trip back to the UK in 1982 I was encouraged by my old teammates to meet him. It was the beginning of a very close and lasting friendship.

When I returned from Kobe to London in the summer of 1983, it was natural for me, via Katsu, to play for London Japanese.  I was playing club rugby for London Irish, then Richmond, in those years, but Lonjapa games were always on a Sunday and so it was possible.  My first game was in Oxford and of all of the other games I played in those days I remember a very cross-cultural fixture against Reading West Indians!  Lonjapa had been founded in 1979 by a small group  of people including Watanabe san the proprietor of Yoisho;  whilst Katsu was therefore technically not one of the actual founders, he is always regarded as one as his energy and enthusiasm on his arrival in 1981 really moved Lonjapa to a regular club rather than one playing just one or two games per year.

I look back with some nostalgia, and a little sadness, to think of the back line of the club when I first played – Hiro Shukuzawa at no 9, myself at no 10 and Katsu at number 12.  It’s incredible to think that not only those two, but also Japanese captain Ishizuka of Ricoh, my teammate for Lonjapa and also at Richmond from 1984, have all passed away.

Katsu returned to Japan in 1983 and in addition to working in Tokyo, he and his family had postings to Teheran and Washington, before he was assigned the London Embassy from 2000.  Deciding he was told old to play at this time (see leg breaking incident below), he become an enthusiastic supporter and member of both Lonjapa and the Kew Occasionals. In all the time in between his university career and arrival back in London he had worked hard as a member of the international committee of the JRFU to promote Japanese rugby internationally, and especially in later years supporting Japan’s successive bids to stage the Rugby World Cup.  It’s well known that former PM Mori, President of the JRFU, said that on hearing the news of Japan’s successful bid to stage the 2019 tournament that his first thought was of Katsu.

As we all know,  Katsu was in 2003 assigned by the Embassy in London to oversee Japan’s contribution to the UN post-war reconstruction programme in Iraq and on November 29th was tragically assassinated along with his diplomatic colleague Inoue and driver south of Tikrit. The shock for his family especially and all of his many friends was immense.  I have a vivid memory of jointly hosting a reception at the Garrick Club with the then Ambassador to honour Katsu’s memory a week later in early December, because as we met the England team were having their Rugby World Cup winning victory parade within walking distance in Trafalgar Square – a strange and striking conjunction.

The memory of the tragedy was initially too raw to contemplate any kind of further memorial, but after two years, in 2005 my friends from Lonjapa and I decided to stage a game between Kew Occasionals and London Japanese for the Katsu Oku Memorial Trophy.  It wasn’t a big occasion at first, but I will always be grateful to Ambassador Nogami for attending all of the first three events  we staged to present the trophy, no matter how small the crowd and how bad the weather and the Japanese Embassy and community generally have continued over the years to support the event.

The Oku Memorial Trophy has since then sometimes been played as a 3 or 4 team tournament including New York Japanese,  Vincent’s Club Oxford and Hertford College, either at the Richmond Athletic Ground or at Iffley Road, Oxford.  In September 2015,  Waseda played Oxford in the opening game of the World University Tournament for a new trophy presented by PM Mori,  and in May 2016 the Kew Occasionals played Waseda Old Boys for the same trophy at the Kami-igusa Ground in Tokyo.

Last year I was pleased that we went ‘back to basics’ – Lonjapa vs Kew at the Richmond Athletic Ground in early December, with Ambassador Tsuruoka honouring us with his presence.  This year we are delighted that at the same venue Hertford College, Oxford will assemble a Past & Present XV to join us in a three way tournament.

I have so many happy memories of Katsu, it’s difficult to choose between them but I will highlight two.  In 1988 I was the Manager of an Oxford University Tour to Japan and by huge luck (or was it?) Katsu was the JRFU liaison officer for the tour. We had a fantastic time together throughout the unbeaten tour until at the final training session before the final game with Japan,  the team (including All Black World Cup winning captain David Kirk, Ian Williams – later of Kobe Steel fame, and 4 other internationals) asked for Katsu and I to provide fully opposed practice. Despite my warnings poor old Katsu tore into the task with huge energy and ended up breaking his leg.  Such was his spirit however, that he attended the game the next day and saw us off at the airport, before having the surgery on his leg that he needed. My other happy memory of him is his time in London from 2000 when we spent a lot of time together, watching rugby and playing golf (with the occasional drink).  In 2002 we made a private trip to watch Oxford play Waseda in the official opening game of Waseda’s Kami-igusa training ground in Tokyo – a very memorable few days indeed.

As I say every year:  Katsu Oku was one of the finest people I ever had the privilege to know – he was energetic, talented and above all great fun to be with.  He made a massive contribution to the early development of London Japanese rugby club and to Japan’s quest to stage the Rugby World Cup and it’s entirely appropriate that we celebrate his life by playing our modest rugby matches in his memory each year.