TOKYO -- World Rugby, the sport's governing body, has decided to certify Japan as a Tier 1 country, making it the first Asian nation to ascend to the sport's top echelon, Nikkei has learned.
The decision comes days after Sir Bill Beaumont was reelected as World Rugby's chairman. Beaumont was in a tight race to keep his job against Agustin Pichot, and according to sources, he won Japan Rugby Football Union's backing with a promise to promote the national team to Tier 1.
It marks the first time for Tier 1, currently made up of 10 mostly European countries, to be expanded.
The chairman has also told the Japanese rugby union that a Lions Tour exhibition will be held in Japan, marking the first time for the team made up of the top players from the four U.K. states and Ireland to play in Japan.
Tier 1 status will mean more games against other Tier 1 teams and more weight when rugby unions vote on World Rugby matters. It could also lead to Japan receiving more World Rugby funds when budget money is distributed.
World Rugby held its election for chairman in late April, when the rugby unions of each council member voted either to retain Beaumont or replace him with his Argentine deputy, Pichot.
The outcome was in doubt, and Beaumont needed to sway some of the uncommitted unions to his side. In the end, he managed a five-vote victory, 28-23.
Tiers are a class system unique to rugby, with the top tier long consisting of 10 countries from Europe and the Southern Hemisphere.
But the system is breaking down. Japan, for instance, has been in Tier 2 despite a combined record of 7-2 in the last two Rugby World Cups. These results would put Japan in the middle of the Tier 1 pack.
In addition, Japan was a top-eight finisher at the 2019 World Cup, which the country hosted to great acclaim.
The promotion to Tier 1 marks an important turning point in Japan's rugby history.
It could give the sport a boost in Japan. While the game has a cult following in the country, it had been losing its appeal for years before the 2019 World Cup. Tier 1 status could further rekindle interest in the game among young athletes and fans.
The Lions Tour exhibition is expected to be another boost. The tour is considered the sport's second biggest event, after the World Cup. It is held once every four years, with the games played somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. Next year, the tour will take place in South Africa.
The exhibition against Japan's national team, which will precede the games in South Africa, is expected to attract a global audience.
The 10 current Tier 1 countries are: Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Scotland and Wales.
Beaumont has also talked about reviewing the tier system.