Sunday 22 September 2019

Japan goes Rugby Crazy: Sport, Diversity, and Being Japanese

Olympic opening ceremony, Tokyo stadium, Sept. 20th 2019. Thanks to L for all the amazing pictures!
Friday saw the opening ceremony (video here) of the rugby world cup - full of cultural references from Kabuki to Mount Fuji - followed by the first game featuring Japan against Russia. The host's victory has pushed rugby fever in the country to new heights. Tickets are all sold out and a frequent topic of conversation between friends is how many rugby and Olympic tickets they applied for - and how many they actually got (usually zero, expressed as hazure in Japanese meaning to miss out or draw a blank).

Football (soccer) and baseball may be king here in Japan but rugby has a long history - it was first played in 1866 -  and has a faithful following (Japan has the fourth largest population of registered players in the world). This is especially true at the high-school and university level. The sell-out audience of almost 50,000 watching Friday's game was impressive, but this was less than the turnout of 66,999 for a game between Waseda and Meiji University in 1952. The Waseda vs Keio University rivalry - known as sōkei (早慶) using one kanji from each - is particularly famous. And the annual National High School Rugby Tournament, held at Hanazono Stadium, the oldest dedicated rugby stadium in Japan, is something of a year-end fixture in the calendar.

A look at the Japanese rugby squad shows it to be incredibly diverse. 15 out of 31 players in the current squad - the most ever - are foreign born as is the head coach. This reflects the fact that the minimum condition for representing a country is only three years continuous residence. Naturalisation is not required but many of the foreign-born players - such as iconic captain Michael Leitch - have acquired Japanese citizenship. Others have mixed parentage, such as the hero of Friday's match, Kotaro Matsushima, who was born in South Africa to a Japanese mother and Zimbabwean father and naturalised at age 5.

In a previous post, I wrote about the treatment of another Japanese sporting success story who does not look "typically" Japanese, tennis ace Naomi Osaka. There I wrote how the media, in trying to claim her as one its own, tends to "Japanise" her by stressing her "typical" Japanese personality traits and her love of Japanese food and pop culture. This is particularly (and painfully) apparent in interviews where Japanese media typically press her to answer in Japanese despite her poor command of the language. Indeed, on a number of occasions she has refused requests from Japanese journalists to answer questions in Japanese, her frustration with this reflected in her recent ad for Nike.

This "Japanisation" - rather than celebrating the diversity and difference that is a key strength of the squad - is also visible in media treatment of the foreign-born Brave Blossoms. For example, during Friday's match, Japanese TV carried short bios of the players during the game including one for veteran Luke Thompson which noted that he "usually speaks Kansai dialect" (普段大阪弁を話す). Before the World Cup the Yomiuri Shimbun (2019/08/22) carried a piece on the first foreign-born captain, Andrew McCormick, entitled "Blond-haired captain with a sakura heart" and sub-titled "Even though having foreign nationality, '(doing it) for Japan'" (外国籍でも「日本のため」). Does the way the media and others are bending over backwards to stress how very Japanese these athletes are - the typical phrase one hears is "more Japanese than the Japanese" - reflect the continuing strength of homogeneous stereotypes of "Japaneseness", as well as general discomfort and unease with those who don't conform to such images? Some food for thought as we enjoy the next six weeks of "the beautiful game."