Opinion & Analysis

New Zealand-Japan rugby ties: A story of citizen diplomacy

As far as New Zealand’s sport diplomacy with East Asia is concerned, the role of rugby in New Zealand-Japan relations is hard to underrate. (Photo: ENZ)

Unsung heroes in the rugby world are behind the ties that bind New Zealand and Japan, writes Koji Kobayashi. 

The 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics has been highlighted as the most recent successful illustration of sport diplomacy.

While the Olympics has been frequently used for the purpose of peace and reconciliation, its effects tend to be short-lived or tokenistic.

Lasting international relationships based on trust and mutual respect are more likely to be built and nurtured by citizen diplomacy – which is exemplified by a case of rugby in New Zealand-Japan relations.

Tokenism of the Olympic Truce

There was a great relief across the world when the DPRK regime announced its intention to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics and to resume formal negotiations with the South Korean government, which effectively brought a break in the rising tension of the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.

To further aid the situation, North and South Korea reportedly formed a joint women’s team for ice hockeyThis is being praised as a true moment of Olympic Truce, the accord for promoting peace and reconciliation through the Olympics.

However, the history of the Olympics has illustrated the rather short-lived and often tokenistic nature of this kind of sport diplomacy.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, not only did the government of West Germany fail to realise the prospect of the unification with East Germany, the event itself was turned into a site of violence and bloodshed triggered by the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. In a more recent case, the symbolic gesture of diplomacy between North and South Korea marching together at the opening ceremonies in Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Turin 2006 Olympics has provided little substance for subsequent reconciliation on the peninsula.

In fact, the Olympics has been frequently used as a political platform to display and intensify nationalism in East Asia.

International sport competitions like the Olympics serve as constant reminders of the ongoing geo-political disputes and unsettled war claims emanating from the history of Japanese imperialism. Although Henry Kissinger’s ping-pong diplomacy, which opened up the US-China relations in the 1970s, was received with much fanfare, a long-term resolution from sport diplomacy is far from guaranteed.

Unsung heroes of NZ sport diplomacy

Students from Japan in NZ

Every year, a number of Japanese high school rugby enthusiasts come to train in New Zealand. (Photo: ENZ)

As far as New Zealand’s sport diplomacy with East Asia is concerned, the role of rugby in New Zealand-Japan relations is hard to underrate.

The strong relationship between New Zealand and Japan in rugby was not established by a formal meeting between Prime Ministers or Foreign Ministers of both countries – rather it was built over years of exchanges of players, coaches and supporters between the two countries.

In comparison to the traditional notion of diplomacy as a conduct of relations between political elites, it is whats been called ‘citizen diplomacy’ that has shaped New Zealand-Japan ‘rugby diplomacy’. 

Citizen diplomacy is an act of ordinary people, such as rugby players and coaches, engaging in cultural exchanges and building international relations. For instance, it would be impossible to understand the unprecedented success by the Japanese men’s rugby team at the 2015 World Cup (including the upset against South Africa) without taking into account long-term contributions from the New Zealand-Japan rugby diplomacy. Not only did the Japanese team have several players who were born and raised in New Zealand (eg. Michael Leitch, Luke Thompson and Male Sa’u), there had been a long list of Kiwi ‘rugby diplomats’ who migrated to Japan over years.

One of the most well-known contributors is Andrew McCormick. 

Born in Christchurch, McCormick went to Christchurch Boys’ High, represented the Canterbury province and then migrated to play rugby professionally in Japan. Most notably, he was selected as the first foreign-born player to captain a Japanese national team and led the team at the 1999 World Cup. After more than 10 years of a dedicated rugby career in Japan, McCormick has been coaching Japanese university teams and passing on his experience to the younger generation.

Citizen diplomacy often involves two-way flows of communication and movements, and the rugby diplomacy is no exception to this. Every year, there are a number of Japanese high school rugby enthusiasts coming to train in New Zealand and even a greater number of Kiwi supporters who help these Japanese youngsters settle in a new country, overcome language barriers and achieve their goals to become better rugby players.

Mark Ealey is among these unsung heroes who are rarely acknowledged for tremendous contributions to New Zealand-Japan rugby relations.

In addition to running an International Rugby Programme for years in Christchurch and making frequent trips to Japan for providing coaching sessions, Ealey helped to set up the Yutaka Akino Friendship Programme through which both Japanese and Kiwi students were funded for rugby exchanges.  

The relations of countries are hardly fixed or changed by a one-off meeting of politicians. Trust takes time to build, and it often requires perseverance to overcome cultural conflicts and subsequent learning on both sides. The NZ-Japan relations in rugby offers a good example of how such trusting and lasting relationships can be developed through citizen diplomacy.

Koji Kobayashi is a lecturer at the Department of Tourism, Sport and Society in the Faculty of Environment, Society and Design at Lincoln University

– Asia Media Centre