The Land of the Rising Scrum: Some things to bear in mind if you’re heading to Japan for the Rugby World Cup

So it’s upon us at last. The time when heads clash, big hands grab opponents and heave them to one side, when heavyweights come up against plucky minnows in a sport weighed down with arcane rules and traditions.

But enough about the sumo! Japan is hosting the Rugby World Cup this autumn, the first second-tier nation to host the tournament and the first time it will be held in Asia. You may be curious to know how rugby came to be played in Japan, when it lies outside the normal old-colonial network of rugby-playing nations.

In fact, it can be considered a legacy of the Meiji restoration (1868), when the Japanese opened themselves up to the outside world after almost two centuries of self-imposed isolation. From that time onwards, Japan looked toward the West for its models of how to construct society. They promoted elite universities like Waseda and Keio, and with them came Oxbridge traditions like rowing and rugby. Japan modelled itself on distant Western societies rather than considering itself part of Asia. Rugby today remains an elite sport, played only by those at top universities and practised in blue-chip companies who sponsor the biggest teams. Rugby is far less popular than either football or baseball, more recent foreign imports.

So in amongst the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremony, the media circus and the influx of 40,000 fans from different parts of the globe, a host of interesting cultural factors are at play. Three key aspects of culture that shape our western images of Japan are face, hospitality and perseverance. How might they affect you if you are travelling in Japan this autumn, whether for business or pleasure? 

Face is a universal social phenomenon, our sense of public dignity we project to the outside world. Our words and actions can protect our face and it can be threatened, for example, if we inadvertently reveal information told in confidence. The Japanese are highly sensitive to face and allow it to affect their interactions with others in complex ways. The Japanese language has an elaborate system of honorifics – suffixes attached to the end of names to show the nature of the relationship.  This means even the most innocuous of statements can potentially be face threatening. In business relations, Japanese people often go to extreme lengths to present themselves in a humble or unflattering light to allow the other person to ‘receive face’.

This means you can be sure the World Cup and the Olympic Games in Tokyo next summer will be logistically well organised and supported. The programme to recruit volunteers was heavily oversubscribed, and ticket sales have gone well. The arenas will be full, even if most local spectators have little grasp of the rules of rucking and mauling and offside infringements.

They seem to be warming to the idea of seeing foreign gladiators do battle with each other in a physically demanding sport. The New Zealand All Blacks, the current world champions and the most successful side in the sport’s history, have almost achieved celebrity status in Japan, featuring in cute adverts on television such as this one: 

Omotenashi, the concept of pre-empting a guest’s needs, even before they have them – is seen as essential in business and personal relations in Japan. The Japanese are rightly famed for their hospitality and will go out of their way to provide a warm welcome. The Japanese will present a very positive face to the world and will provide levels of customer service that will impress visitors from outside.

Perseverance despite suffering is our third Japanese cultural value. Whether it comes from Buddhist teachings or is the result of living in a country that is frequently at the mercy of the elements – earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, torrential rain, the Japanese place huge cultural capital on the virtue of never giving up, of fighting individually through to the end to support the team.

When it comes to rugby, the Japanese team is small, mobile, but also competitive. They once lost to New Zealand by the unflattering  score of 17-145 but more recently they produced one of the most uplifting David and Goliath stories in the whole of sport during the last World Cup when they beat South Africa in the final seconds of a pool match. The story of the ‘Brighton Miracle’ is being told in a feature film released to coincide with the tournament. You can find the trailer here.

This is what has brought them such success in terms of their place on the international stage. They may not figure in the final of the Rugby World Cup this time, but they have certainly earned their right to stand shoulder to shoulder with their international opponents.

With thanks to Rob Johnson.

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