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Isileli Nakajima – the Tongan powerhouse in Japan’s Rugby World Cup team

By Reina Va’ai

Isileli Nakajima. Photo: AFP

Isileli Nakajima is a pretty hard man to miss. Well above 6 feet, he stands out amongst a Japanese crowd. His larger than life stature however, is tempered by his self-effacing, genuine and kind nature. The initial intimidation wears off immediately, especially when he removes his hat, hiding his dyed blonde hair matching his dyed blonde beard. ‘You’re the Tongan Justin Bieber’ and he laughs putting his hands up, ‘No, no, no. Not Justin Bieber. Please’.

Whilst the Justin Bieber reference doesn’t sit too well with Nakajima, he definitely won’t deny his golden Tongan smile. Nakajima’s gold tooth has raised several eyebrows from Japanese locals over the years, wondering whether it has any connection to the Yakuza. He sees the funny side of it and admits that explaining the cultural significance of his gold tooth is something that he’s used to now that he has been living in Japan for 12 years. Nakajima was only a teenager when he first arrived in a country miles away from his humble home in Tongatapu, Tonga. The opportunity to play rugby overseas came knocking when a university coach from Japan travelled to Tonga to choose only one player. The coach was certain he wanted Nakajima. ‘I didn’t know anything about Japan before coming here. I was actually offered a scholarship to attend Sacred Heart, the same time the opportunity to move to Japan came up’. Nakajima says it was his father that encouraged him to choose Japan. He shrugs his shoulders casually and says ‘Now I’m here’.

That incredible decision made many years ago as a teen has now landed him his biggest debut to date; a spot in Japan’s Rugby World Cup team for 2019. Humble as ever, Nakajima describes his selection as ‘unbelievable. I didn’t know if I would make it because I was a lock. And Jamie [Coach] asked me if I could play prop’. Not afraid of a challenge, he told his coach, ‘No problem, if you teach me well, I think I can’. Nakajima had only four months to prepare and his determination pushed him across the finish line. ‘It was hard but I think I have the Tongan power’. He laughs and plays it off as a joke, but it’s clearly the truth.

Photo: William West / AFP

As proud as Nakajima is of his Tongan heritage, you would be easily forgiven for believing he was Japanese just by looking at his name. ‘Nakajima’ is his wife’s surname. ‘Most of my family’ Nakajima says, ‘didn’t know that I was playing in the Rugby World Cup because of my name.’ It may be considered an usual choice for some but Nakajima shares about his increasing awareness and willingness to reject patriarchal norms. ‘I saw a lot of problems in the [community] I was raised in, like abuse of women and stuff like that. My experience in Japan has taught me a lot about discipline and I want to pass those values on to my sons’. Taking on the name ‘Nakajima’ is therefore not only an expression of love for his adopted home but more importantly, an eternal promise to honor his wife and children. They are his greatest inspiration.

There’s a moment of silent reflection where Nakajima sighs and shakes his head, as if he cannot believe where he is. The young teenager from Tonga all those years ago probably wouldn’t have believed it either if a university coach didn’t visit his home. Nakajima wants to encourage more young people from the Pacific to consider pursuing a professional rugby career in Japan. ‘I think a lot of people don’t really see all the great opportunities here. The people are so nice. They are like our people back home. They are very respectful. They have treated me well over the years and I want to repay them by doing my best in this World Cup.’ With a name like Nakajima and that Tongan power he shyly referred to; there’s no denying he will do just that. Give his absolute best to a sport and country that has provided him with the life, a young boy from Tongatapu, only ever dreamed of.

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