Noriko Kishida will go down in history as changing the face of women’s sport in Japan through bravery and determination.
In 1989 Tokyo, women’s rugby was almost unheard of, so when Noriko and her friends formed a team, they faced ridicule and hostility from all angles. They defied the social conventions of 80s Japan, pushing back against the critics to become incredibly successful.
Despite their humble beginnings, they soon became one of the strongest sides around and many of them were selected to represent their country in the Women’s World Cup.
‘I started rugby when I was 37 years old,’ Noriko tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Since then, rugby has always been an important part of my life.
‘It is a sport that not only makes me feel a sense of belonging in society, but also helps bring me and my friends together from all around the world – from different countries – to play a sport that we all have passion for.
‘We are a network of men and women who are closely connected by rugby, demonstrating the multifaceted elements of the sport.’
Noriko’s team, Liberty Fields RFC, played at an incredibly high level despite having no coach, no doctor and very little support, instead relying on what they did have – a team.
Balancing training with jobs and families, they set a new level for women’s sport in Japan, showing what you can achieve with grit, determination, and an unbreakable spirit.
‘For the world to work to its fullest potential, it’s crucial for men and women to co-exist together, to have equal opportunities, and to have the same chance for success,’ says Noriko. ‘Even in moments of doubt, I always remind myself the importance of believing in yourself and what you stand for.
‘It is important to combat prejudices and support the ongoing fight for equality, which all men and women are entitled to.’
When Noriko looks back at that time, it’s impossible to ignore the misogynistic treatment that she and her teammates were subjected to. But she knew this fight was too important to give up on.
‘Back in the 1980s in Japan, the sexual harassment of women was a given; it was the norm and became a part of our existence,’ she says. ‘Typically, men expected women to be archetypal: young, pretty, submissive and willing to quit their jobs for a life of marriage.
‘We were confined by tradition and patriarchal constraints.
‘A particular challenge within this environment was proving that rugby is a sport for women as well as men. At the time, women’s teams in any sport were not considered official, nor taken seriously by sporting associations, which led us to form our own organisation, Liberty Fields.
‘We made the impossible, possible and the legacy still lives on through the GUINNESS documentary.’
The story of Liberty Fields RFC has been immortalised in a five-minute mini documentary and TV advert that shines a light on their story.
‘As a team of strong women, we were driven and motivated by the philosophies and beliefs behind Liberty Fields, helping us rise above the challenges that we faced,’ explains Norika.
‘Being aware that our actions were (and still are) having a significant impact on society, fuelled our desire for change in the world of sport and how women were perceived in rugby.
At the time, women’s rugby teams weren’t recognised as official – so Norika’s team founded their own organisation to legitimise their efforts. But Norika knows the battle is far from won.
‘There isn’t a doubt that we’ve already come a long way regarding women in sport, however, with time there also comes more challenges that we must strive to overcome,’ she tells us.
‘One test for women is to continue to uphold our physical as well as mental strength when times get tough. Sometimes, it is easy to give into external pressures, but with strong willpower and belief, we will continue to make more important changes for women in the world of sport.
‘For me, a strong woman is someone who’s independent, compassionate, inspirational to others, and not affected by the pressures of society.
‘A strong woman is also someone who maintains her own character and natural beauty, not succumbing to the falsities that the world of social media often projects onto young women and men.
‘Finally, she is someone who is not afraid to feel, not influenced by negative energies and follows her dreams to pursue the life or career she wants.’
Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.
A Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.
But, contrary to the limited images we so often see, women of any age, size, race or ability can be active and enjoy sport and fitness.
We hope that by normalising diverse depictions of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.
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