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For Japan, the Rugby World Cup is about so much more than sporting glory

The divide between sport and politics is thinner than you might think.

The first match of an international tournament is always a big deal, and this year's Rugby World Cup opener on 20 September was no different. However, when hosts Japan kicked off their campaign against Russia, there was a palpable feeling that this one was particularly significant. This, the first Rugby World Cup in Asia, has the potential to change the game forever.

Rugby, at the highest level, straddles a Eurocentric and Oceanian bias (with the notable and key exception of South Africa). It’s rare that a team outside of this narrow paradigm succeeds when facing one of the sport's big boys.

This makes it all the more notable that one of the major stories of the 2015 World Cup, and of the build-up matches to this edition, was Japan beginning to assert themselves on the world stage.

Their narrow 34-32 win against South Africa in 2015 is widely regarded as one of the greatest shocks of all time, and helped put Japanese rugby on the map.

Now they have the weight of expectation that comes with hosting. Their impressive, bonus point-securing 30-10 win in the opening fixture only furthers that growing reputation. So far, so good.

But for Japan, this World Cup is significant beyond sport. It is an opportunity to show itself as an outward looking nation in a tense socio-economic context, keen to host the world on their shores both this year and next year with the Tokyo Olympics.

The divide between sport and politics is thinner than you might think.

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Beyond raising the country's profile, this World Cup will play a role in Japan’s wider place in the world.

“Japan has a difficult relationship with the rest of the world over energy use,” says Simon Rofe from the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD) at Soas. “Particularly with coal, particularly also around the rehabilitation from the tsunami and the Fukushima incident.”

These two events remain particularly traumatic for the Japanese cultural consciousness. The 2011 Tōhoku 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded on Japanese shores. There were more than 20,000 casualties. The “Fukushima incident” meanwhile refers to the infamous nuclear disaster that occurred in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, with the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant taking critical damage. The result: radiation leaks that continue to this day, and a 30km evacuation zone.

The Rugby World Cup offers an opportunity to target – and soothe – specific tensions and anxieties both in Japan and abroad.

Those anxieties stretch also to geopolitics, with an increasingly unstable North Korea acting as a worryingly noisy neighbour.

“Japan has a huge interest in what's going on there,” Rofe says, “not least as any fallout – and I don't use that word lightly – from what goes on there is going to affect Japan hugely."

Rofe also points out the context of a China growing in power and influence, and the inflammatory presidency of Donald Trump. All that provides a prime opportunity for a PR exercise.

“There is a public relations dimension to this,” he says. “The potential for the feel-good factor is definitely out there but you need to cultivate that. That doesn't just happen by accident.”

But the last time that Japan were in this position, following the 2002 Fifa World Cup, which Japan co-hosted with South Korea, Rofe believes they let it slip by.

“They lost out in the public diplomacy battle to the South Koreans,” he says, citing celebrations and viewing parties on the streets of Seoul, and Guus Hiddink being granted honorary South Korean citizenship following the team’s run to the semi-finals.

Is Japan in a better position to capitalise upon the spotlight this time around?

“I think possibly there's a generational shift between 2002 and where we are now,” Rofe says, “and perhaps a recognition that they didn't do enough with the opportunity given to them.

“They weren't alone at that point because legacy has only really become part of the discussion surrounding sporting events since 2006.”

“Legacy”, that famous Lord Seb Coe catchphrase that came to define the 2012 London Olympics. Rofe says that it was the London bid that really cemented this in the public imagination. 

“Now,” he says, “you can’t move for it.”

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Obviously, it’s far too early to discuss legacy when it comes to Japan's World Cup. That said, there has already been some impact.

Due in large part to the build-up to this tournament, a reported 1.8 million people in Asia have started playing rugby, one million of whom are from Japan itself.

Meanwhile, ticket sales have been strong. Even though the total 1.8m tickets available is a marked decrease on the 2.47m sold in England four years ago, 1.6m of them were sold in advance of the tournament – not bad for a nation often seen as uninterested in the sport.

A few weeks ago, though, it was a different story. Yuko Suzuki, a Japanese journalist and TV presenter, says she heard conflicting takes from friends and colleagues in the Japanese media on whether this would be a successful tournament.

“In the build-up period,” she says, “they were not so confident in terms of bringing up the viewing figures to the level they wanted.”

“Not many people actually predicted that it's gonna be successful to the level of football or any other sport.”

This pessimism was partly inspired by what Suzuki sees as a sharp dropoff in interest after the 2015 victory of South Africa.

“I heard more about rugby from people from Europe, or mainly the English, about Japanese rugby than Japanese people who were living in Japan,” she says. “For me, it's suddenly gone up and then disappeared within two years.”

Japan is unsurprisingly embarking a charm offensive for the influx of foreign visitors watching matches in person – even if you get the odd snide comment in the pub about the number of tourists.

A half-Japanese friend in Tokyo tells me that it’s impossible to avoid the World Cup hype, even if you wanted to.

“There is a lot of state backing and finance supporting it,” he says, “and supporting the tourists who are coming here to watch the games: posters in streets, adverts on tv (including infomercials in English on how to use convenience stores) and plenty of push from pubs and bars in terms of advertising – to the point that if you work for anything with commercial links you probably hate rugby and all it stands for now.”

Given that he’s half-English, he knows very well the zealous euphoria of World Cup season in the UK, both for the Rugby World Cup four years ago (despite a pretty shocking English performance where they failed to get out of the group), and more recently last year with England’s run to the semi-finals in the football World Cup in Russia. 

The mood in Japan is different, but there is still excitement, he says. "Through sheer coverage alone, and the healthy bit of localised community engagement in stadium towns, some people will be pulled into the sport. Even if it’s just marketing attrition.”

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Much of the judgment on whether this is a successful World Cup will come down to how many fans rugby attracts and - importantly - retains.

Dan Orlowitz, sports writer at the Japan Times, points out the effort being made to educate potential new fans about the sport.

“Overall the Rugby World Cup has made an incredibly good first impression with the Japanese public,” he says. “They love the pageantry, the international element, the fans.

“A lot of the public aren't familiar with rugby, so a lot of the mainstream media efforts have been 'rugby for dummies' type soft pieces, but they're naturally curious and willing to go along with it even if they don't understand the rules.”

But is this attempt to snare new fans working?

“There is, at least for now, a lot of interest,” he says.

But there are structural issues with how Rugby is played in Japan that may limit the tournament's long-term impact.

“The legacy of this RWC in terms of how popular rugby gets in Japan will depend mightily on the ability of the Top League [the Japanese top-flight Rugby competition] to capitalise on it. Because it's not a fully professional league - the clubs are all company teams - there's a bit of a hurdle.”

Orlowitz points to basketball and football only really taking off in Japan after becoming fully professional. That said, he feels football’s explosion in popularity was directly due to the 2002 Fifa World Cup.

“2002 was absolutely a watershed moment for football's growth in Japan,” he says, “not only because it gave the country a World Cup and its first knockout stage appearance, but because of the infrastructure viz a viz stadiums. Eight of the ten Japanese stadiums used in 2002 are still in regular use today by J.League clubs. [Shizuoka Stadium] Ecopa still gets used occasionally for J.League fixtures and NT games.”

Crucially, six RWC stadia were constructed for, or used as part of, the 2002 World Cup. The legacy, at least regarding stadia, certainly holds up

The exact choice and placement of these host stadia is born out of politicking between prefectures, as with any world cup. However, there is one particular choice that seems to be doing some genuine good. 

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“Kamaishi in Iwate was a rugby town hit badly by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake”, my friend tells me from Tokyo, referencing the touchingly-named Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium. “This is giving them a chance to rebuild the town. I’m not saying that’s all rugby - or whether the tourist gamble will pay off - but it’s the impetus.”

Certainly, the stories coming out of Wednesday’s thriller in that stadium, in which Uruguay pulled off a historic 30-27 upset against Fiji, is that the match fitted the surroundings – an exciting game for a town that deserves some positive press.

“In the local level, they are really relieved,” says Yuko Suzuki. “They really wanted to host this big game and they succeeded at it, so definitely there is a sense of achievement or satisfaction.

“It was something they needed in the area, and inviting people all over the world to their region and showcasing all the good things is really important and it was really nice to get media attention in that as well.”

Again pointing to the Olympics and Paralympics next year, she mentions the importance of the word "omotenashi".

“The direct translation is sort of hospitality,” she explains, “but it has a bit more meaning. We try to give a warm welcome to other people. We try to show the care for people when we welcome people.”

She feels that Kamaishi is the perfect representative for omotenashi.

“As a successful example,” she says, “I think it's quite meaningful and significant.”

Suzuki is keen to point out, however, that there was one critical event in Japan that gets somewhat overlooked in the usual Western discourse around the recovery of Japan following the trauma of the tsunami: the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

Held in Germany, Japan soared to an unlikely triumph, beating the US powerhouse in the final.

“Nobody really expected it to be like that”, she says. “That came only three months after the disaster. Our men's team would never ever win the World Cup. Of course, they're trying, but it never happens. With women's football, we didn't even know we had some leagues! But suddenly, they won it, beating the US in an almost impossible way.”

The US are widely regarded as the best team in the world, and are renowned for their physical prowess. Suzuki points to the difference in physicality as a clear metaphor for their underdog status. But despite that, Japan won on penalties.

“The way they went against a strong US was something really cheerful for us, the country which was damaged by natural disaster and a nuclear problem,” she says. “Suddenly they became superstars. They were the world champions and they gave us hope in the way they played.”

Japan travelled the world and won. Eight years on, the world now comes to Japan. Crucially, it’s not just Tokyo, but Japan as a whole. Rofe believes that in terms of sport's role in diplomacy the World Cup really will have a positive impact in part becasue it takes place across the country.

“That's very much part of why you host one of these events in the first place, to spread it around,” he says. “And in that sense, by doing that, as well as hosting the Olympics, you're able to say, 'the Olympics might just be in Tokyo, but the Rugby World Cup's gone everywhere’.”

Daniel Curtis is a former Danson intern at the New Statesman.