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Tea Leaves

Lessons in identity and sport from Planet Rugby

Japan's Brave Blossoms show they have skin in the game

Japan's Rugby World Cup squad has players from various backgrounds. (Photo by Toshiki Sasazu)

Japan's squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup now underway contains a remarkably diverse cast of characters. Kotaro Matsushima, who scored a crucial try against Scotland, was born in South Africa to a Zimbabwean father and a Japanese mother. Luke Thompson, the huge second rower who, at 38, is the oldest player in the tournament, hails from New Zealand. Isileli Nakajima, the Tonga-born prop, has added to his already considerable presence by dyeing his hair and beard blonde.

Altogether, half the team's players are foreign born. The contrast couldn't be greater with Japan's national soccer team, which is made up of Japanese born citizens who look typically Japanese.

Rugby has always had a flexible approach to eligibility, perhaps reflecting its roots in the British Empire, in which groups of settlers and expatriates would form their own teams. Japan's current coach Jamie Joseph is a recent example of that laissez-faire attitude. He represented the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup, then turned out for Japan in the 1999 tournament. That particular loophole has since been closed, but it remains the case that it is not necessary to be a citizen of a country to feature in its national rugby team. Blood ties, even quite distant ones, are enough, as is residency for a period of three years, soon to be extended to five. Most sports, soccer included, are much stricter.

By accident, international rugby has become a case study in borderless globalization, with all its attractions and risks. As in the world of business, the top talent goes to where the opportunities are most compelling, which is in the richer economies. The winners are the talents themselves and the organizations -- companies, national teams -- that use their skills, and their supporters. The losers include the homegrown talent, who have been outcompeted by the new arrivals. Irish lock Devin Toner and English scrum-half Danny Care were voluble in their dissatisfaction at losing out to southern hemisphere imports in their respective world cup squads.

The real victims, though, are barely visible. Just as skilled immigration from the developing world strips the countries of origin of their most educated people, the very ones needed to raise standards of living, so the exodus of rugby talent from Fiji, Tonga and Samoa has dragged down the level of rugby competitiveness in those countries. In relation to their tiny populations, the Pacific Islands have produced an extraordinary number of outstanding rugby players -- some of whom now play for the national teams of Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, France and Japan. Some left their homelands at an early age as their families became economic migrants; others later on, when their sporting prowess was evident. What is clear is that if the Pacific Island countries had the economic resources of the developed world, they would be regular contenders for the Rugby World Cup.

For the host countries, a different set of challenges arises. How can national identities endure in an age of mass immigration and multiple identities and values? Is there a point beyond which diversity has diminishing or even negative returns? The same goes for sport. Sumo wrestling lost popularity between 2003 and 2016, a period in which all the yokozuna (grand champions) were foreign. Then, when Japanese native Kisenosato was promoted to the highest rank, a mini-boom ensued.

The emotional connection between sports fans and their heroes is a delicate thing. If the Brave Blossoms' entire starting-15 players had been South Africans and New Zealanders, surely the TV ratings for the Japan vs Samoa match would not have hit 45%.

Japan is among the minority of countries -- India, China and Singapore are others -- that does not allow dual citizenship. At the age of 22, dual citizens are supposed to choose one and give up the other, as tennis star Naomi Osaka has just done by becoming Japanese.

The best justification for single citizenship, as Lebanese-American writer and analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb said of his decision to become a U.S. citizen and put himself at the mercy of the American tax bureaucracy, is that it gives you "skin in the game." If there is something you don't like -- the tax system, in Taleb's case -- you don't jet off to another of your "homelands", as did Nissan's Carlos Ghosn. You stay and work for change, via the ballot box, lobbying and other political activity.

Roughly half of the foreign-born players in Japan's World Cup squad quite literally have "skin in the game," having taken up Japanese citizenship, thereby relinquishing their former nationality. That includes "Captain Fantastic" Michael Leitch, or "Riichi Maikeru" as he is known in the Japanese press, with family name first in the Japanese style.

Isileli Nakajima is also a Japanese citizen. In a recent interview with a New Zealand TV channel, he explained that he took his wife's family name as an expression of love for his adopted home and also an eternal promise to honor his wife and children.

"The people are so nice," he said. "They are like our people back home. They are very respectful. They have treated me well over the years and I want to repay them by doing my best in this World Cup."

Former Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose started the practice of teaching the foreign-born players to sing "Kimigayo," the Japanese national anthem, as a bonding exercise. It is certainly an interesting spectacle to see the towering South Africans and New Zealanders struggling through the words of a 1,000-year old waka poem. It also happens to be an excellent idea. Building team spirit is crucial to success in rugby -- and also in nation-states and communities.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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