Ex-Japan rugby international Latu helps Tonga recover from disaster

A Tonga-born former Japanese rugby international is using his sporting connections to help the South Pacific island nation recover from a powerful volcanic eruption and tsunami in January.

One of the first Tongan players to represent a Japanese college rugby team, William Sinali Latu, who first came to Japan as a teenage exchange student, led Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University to the championship national university twice, in 1986 and 1988.

Former Japan rugby international William Sinali Latu (L), founder of the non-profit Japan-Tonga Friendship Association, stands alongside Tonga’s Ambassador to Japan Tevita Suka Mangisi (C) during of an emergency relief donation ceremony in Ora, Gunma Prefecture on April 20, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Japan-Tonga Friendship Association) (Kyodo)

He went on to play 32 Tests for his adopted country, including three World Cups, while enjoying a successful club career and paving the way for successive generations of Tongan players to follow in his footsteps.

The majority of the roughly 200 Tongan citizens currently living in Japan are involved in rugby, with many playing in high schools and universities.

Aware of the challenges they face, 56-year-old Latu established the non-profit Japan-Tonga Friendship Association to ease their transition to life in Japan.

“Although some players may strive to represent Japan, others cannot make the best team and leave college without learning new skills,” said Latu, who works for a subsidiary of Panasonic Holdings. Corp., the parent company of his former club team, now known as Saitama Wild Knights.

File photo uploaded to the official Geological Survey of Tonga Facebook page on January 14, 2022 shows geologists observing plumes from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano. (Kyodo)

Latu, who has taken Japanese nationality and is fluent in Japanese, has struggled to get the nonprofit off the ground, with a number of banks telling her she doesn’t meet strict account opening criteria.

He finally made progress after crossing paths with a rugby-loving bank branch manager who once played against Latu in college.

“The connections you make through rugby are incredible,” said Latu, who was deeply moved by the encounter.

The NPO was just months away from its planned start of operations when the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai submarine volcano began erupting in late December.

The eruption reached a powerful climax almost a month later, triggering volcanic ash clouds and a tsunami that hit several countries around the Pacific and devastated parts of Tonga.

Seeking to help Tongans affected by the disaster, the charity sprang into action in the pre-launch phase, soliciting donations from all over Japan.

Rugby teams, businesses and individuals across the country answered the call, enabling the NPO to recently transfer approximately 30 million yen ($235,000) in emergency relief to the Tonga Embassy in Japan.

“I hope donations can have even a small impact in helping Tongans get their lives back,” Latu said.

Hirotoshi Otokawa, an official with the Japan-Tonga Friendship Association who has known Latu since he arrived in Japan in 1985, said the NPO’s founder visited every donor to express his gratitude for their generosity.

“The diligence and care he showed everyone was even more Japanese than a Japanese,” Otokawa said.

Going forward, Latu hopes to help Tonga address its lack of industry and reduce its economic dependence on foreign aid and overseas remittances from migrant workers.

To that end, he dreams of opening a Japanese language school in Tonga to help train people who will be eligible for skilled worker visas allowing them to pursue jobs in Japan other than rugby.

The founder of the non-profit Japan-Tonga Friendship Association, former Japan rugby international William Sinali Latu, is pictured at the association in Ora, Gunma prefecture on April 19, 2022. (Kyodo)

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