Kenta Kutsuna on beating cancer, playing for Heriot’s Blues and meeting Mr Greig

Midfielder is on a one man mission to strengthen Japanese-Scottish rugby relations

Kenta Katsuna in action for Heriot's Blues in the Premiership this season. Image: Grant Kinghorn

PERHAPS there are no direct flights from Tokyo to Edinburgh because Kenta Kutsuna rolled into Waverley Station late last year by train. He arrived with little money, no friends, nowhere to stay, no job and no club to play for. He was, I suggest, Japan’s answer to Paddington Bear; the only difference being that the little midfielder probably wasn’t sporting a hand written sign: “Please look after this Japanese rugby player”.

Kutsuna laughs fit to burst at this image but then he laughs at almost everything I say. It’s an endearing trait, making me feel I have a new ‘bestie’ after one brief meeting. He is an immensely positive human being and why wouldn’t he be, having survived cancer?

His story is a little mundane, until the cancer. He loves rugby, a lot, so he played from an early age despite the fact that it is way down the list of Japan’s favourite sports. He was good enough to be part of the Honda Heat squad in the J-League but left after four years. He was as happy as a sandboy teaching PE at a high school and coaching university rugby when he couldn’t help but notice one morning that his urine was running red.


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Kutsuna has some English but is talking through a translator, Nori, a lovely lady who was recently contacted by a Scottish women in Japan asking if she could help teach the kids Japanese this summer; Mike Blair’s missus!

Anyway Kenta/Nori says the doctors laughed at him, although that seems a stretch. The point is that they didn’t believe it was cancer, that much is certain. At 21 Kutsuna was far too young. The doctors were wrong. It was cancer. Of the bladder, to be exact. His life melted away. It was, he says, “like a bad dream and I could not think of anything”.

He lay in hospital for a month. It was during Covid so he was in complete isolation, no friends, no family, no visitors at the most critical time of his short life; mental anguish heaped upon physical agony. “For one month I was not alive,” he says.

We know this story has a happy ending otherwise he would not just have finished his first season in the Premiership with Heriot’s Blues where he impressed at both 10 and 12. The doctors caught the cancer early, removed it, and Kutsuna says that he cried when given the all clear.

This much is perfectly understandable, who wouldn’t be emotional in the same circumstances? However, Kutsuna also admits that the floodgates opened when he visited Rugby School, spiritual home of the game he loves, a lot, which is just a tiny bit weird from a British perspective. (If you occasionally worry that the world is becoming homogeneous in manner, thought and belief, a trip to Japan will set you right.)

And if you thought Kutsuna carries a deep and abiding love for rugby in his heart just wait till you hear about the bromance when he met his hero Greig Laidlaw, who played two years with NTT’s Urayasu D-Rocks in Japan’s second division and has now coached the same side for two additional years. The little Scottish scrummy is, as the song says, big in Japan.

“The moment I saw him his aura was amazing,” says Kutsuna of the one time Scottish captain after the two hooked up for a coffee in Edinburgh.

“He was gentle, kind, thoughtful and utterly humble,” Kutsuna gushes. “It was always one of my dreams to meet him. Mr Greig is a hero in Japan. He was one of the players to watch out for in the World Cup (RWC’19, held in Japan).”

 

Kenta Kutsuna meets his hero Greig Laidlaw
Kenta Kutsuna meets his hero Greig Laidlaw

 

Playing alongside Luke Townsend at Heriot’s meant that Kutsuna also got to meet the Scotland head coach although he fails to offer any comment on Gregor’s aura. One idol at any given time is probably the designated number.

I suggest to Kutsuna that, at the risk of extrapolating from a sample of one, the Japanese seem to be an all or nothing sort of people. Once they buy into something they commit 100 percent and he wholeheartedly agrees, nodding in vigorous approval, offering more evidence, laughing all the while, but you knew that already.

The point he wants to make is that without the cancer he would never have summoned up the courage to travel halfway around the globe to Scotland. The cancer was a blessing in disguise, “everything happens for a reason,” says Nori, offering a Buddhist take on events, before Kutsuna introduces me to “the first penguin principle”.

He was going to play in England but Kutsuna states that a well known Japanese player, the late Seiji Hirao, had already spent a season with Richmond back in the 1980s. He wanted to be the first Japanese rugby player somewhere, “the first penguin principle”, so he fired off a number of emails to Scottish clubs and Heriot’s were quickest to respond.

The first penguin has to be brave to enter the icy waters but his (or her) courage will be rewarded because they have taken the plunge. After cancer, he reckoned, what’s the worst that could happen?

“The cancer gave me the courage to change my life. I would never have traveled to Scotland unless I had suffered the cancer which made me fearless,” says Kutsuna. I suggest that the cancer simply revealed the courage that was always there.

 

With Luke and Gregor Townsend after Heriot's Blues take on Hawick
With Luke and Gregor Townsend after Heriot’s Blues take on Hawick

 

Kutsuna would like to make several things clear. Heriot’s have done him proud, finding him a place to stay and getting him a job as a furniture remover, even if that seems an odd fit for a diminutive out-half. And outwith the confines of Goldenacre, Kutsuna has been met with warmth.

“Scots are so kind and so friendly,” he insists. So we can be proud of our welcome although Kutsuna’s immediate acceptance probably says as much about him as it does about us.

On the downside, he would like his bike back, please. And yes, it was locked, even though Nori explains to me that in Japan an unlocked bike still would not be stolen and I am momentarily shamed.

Kutsuna was blown away by the sheer beauty of Edinburgh, which we always suspected but it’s nice to get foreign confirmation, and he says that Scottish food is terrible.

As you were. That last comment got lost in translation. Scottish food is just fine but Kutsuna is struggling to find a Japanese restaurant in Edinburgh that passes muster. Anyone?

He is Scotland’s self-appointed ambassador to Japan, keen to forge ever closer links between Japanese and Scottish rugby. Single-handedly, if needs be.

He writes articles on Scotland for magazines back home and hosts a YouTube channel outlining his adventures; search Kutsuna Kenta and brush up on your Japanese.

He will return to Japan this summer to attend his brother’s wedding but has promised to be back in Scotland for the start of next season as he has a two-year work visa. One of his stated ambitions is to play at Murrayfield so I cheekily remark that he might want to switch his allegiance to Hawick?

This suggestion is greeted with incredulity, feigned or otherwise? Kutsuna is a Heriots’ man through and through, is the gist of his response (I have stopped taking notes by this time) rather than the literal translation. He would not dream of playing anywhere else! He is 100 percent Goldenacre, as if born and bred. He bleeds blue and white.

I am momentarily minded to ask Nori what the Japanese for “toe nail” is, then think better of it.


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About Iain Morrison 146 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

5 Comments

  1. Lovely story – sounds like a gem of a human being and wish hime well in his mission to find a decent Japanese restaurant. Kanpai perhaps.

  2. What a great story!

    There’s a decent Japanese restaurant in Gala of all places… maybe it’s best he doesn’t travel down though, if he thinks the food isn’t as good as back home then I hate to think how he’d compare the train services.

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  3. Kenta-san is an absolute gentleman – a huge asset on and off the field at Goldenacre. A real privilege to be part of the same club as him. Looking forward to seeing him develop further next season.

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