Photo/IllutrationKing Taufaahau Tupou IV of Tonga wears the traditional "montsuki" kimono and "hakama" for men during a visit to Japan in November 1973. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Tonga's King Taufaahau Tupou IV (1918-2006), who ascended the throne in 1965, was a Japanophile who started sending students to Japan in the 1980s to promote abacus education in his country.

Nofomuli Taumoefolau, 63, was one of the first such students.

I visited him the other day at the Saitama Institute of Technology in Fukaya, Saitama Prefecture, where he currently works.

"During my first two years in Japan, I worked really hard learning to use the abacus with my classmates who were in primary school," he recalled. "But after that, I didn't have much time for it."

That was because his rugby practice began to take up all his time. At Daito Bunka University where he was studying, he became the key player on the school's rugby team.

In his native Tonga, he had been on the national rugby team.

While Taumoefolau had no trouble picking up Japanese and adapting to local food, he could not get used to the extreme "pecking order," based on seniority, that prevailed in university sports back then.

Upper classmen would be so full of themselves, just because they were older, expecting younger students to serve them like slaves.

Refusing to accept this practice, Taumoefolau yelled at a bully one day, "Your seniority means zero if you don't have it in you to look out for your juniors."

Upon joining Sanyo Electric Co., Ltd., he became the leader of the company's rugby team. And in 1987, he was picked for the Japanese national team for the first Rugby World Cup.

"I felt the tremendous weight of my responsibility as a Tongan representing Japan," he said.

He scored two tries in the first match.

Having lived in Japan for 39 years, Taumoefolau speaks fluent Japanese. "I am sure the king expected me to return to Tonga as an abacus instructor," he noted. "But I am happy that I remained in Japan."

In his free time, he looks after younger compatriots who have come to Japan. There will be five Tongans on the Japanese national team when the Rugby World Cup kicks off on Sept. 20.

Had King Taufaahau Tupou IV not been an abacus fan, the rugby fever we are witnessing this autumn may never have happened.

I would like to thank, again, the efforts of abacus students from Tonga.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 18

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.