Kotaro Matsushima from Japans Brave Blossoms scores a try during a match against Fiji in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture on July 27, 2019. Japan beat Fiji 34-21. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun / AFP

On Saturday, one of the world’s biggest sporting events – the 2019 Rugby World Cup – kicks off in Japan. With the sport’s top 20 global teams battling it out in the lengthy competition – it does not conclude until November 2 – the Land of the Rising Sun will be strongly illuminated by the globe’s sporting spotlight.

Although it is the first time the tournament has come to Asia, observers confidently anticipate a superb event. The autumn weather, as well as the organization, infrastructure and transport of the world’s third-richest nation, is expected to be first class. And of course, Japan has a robust drinking culture, so the après-rubgy is expected to be lively.

Only one Asian team is represented: Japan. Organizers hope that “The Brave Blossoms” will leverage home-town advantage and deliver a decent showing, resulting in an upsurge of interest in rugby across Japan – and thence, perhaps, across the wider region.

The Rugby World Cup serves as an excellent appetizer ahead of next year’s main course, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

While there are fears about summer temperatures, the Summer Games were held in Beijing in 2008 at a similar time and in similar heat without undue problems. And while some non-governmental organizations have raised the specter of Fukushima radiation, national governments – and their Olympic committees – seem unconcerned.

Abe opens the doors

Both the Rugby World Cup and the Tokyo Olympics should be viewed through a wider prism, for Japan’s Shinzo Abe administration has made inbound tourism a central priority. Last year, according to the Japanese National Tourism Organization, Japan saw 31 million tourists visit – a huge rise from a paltry 8.4 million in 2012, when Abe assumed his second term in office.

In 2019, the World Economic Forum’s “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report” ranked the country fourth out of 144 nations – a big rise from 14th in 2013. Japan scored high for health and hygiene, safety and security, cultural resources and business travel.

Naturally, there are downsides: Japan is pricey, and foreign languages are little spoken. But overall, the picture is positive.

And it is not just incoming tourists who are getting the easy-visa treatment.

Under its current prime  minister, Japanese society is welcoming more migrant labor than ever. While macro-economic growth has been hammered by the cross-Pacific trade war, Japan, with a desperately aging population, enjoys virtually full employment, making it a destination of choice for many young Asians seeking overseas jobs.


Abe has pried open the long-closed Japanese economy via free trade deals. After US President Donald Trump, in one of his first moves in office, pulled out of the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe took over the helm to became the de facto prime mover behind the regional grouping. Last year, he signed a free-trade agreement with the European Union. This month – albeit under somewhat more pressure – he is expected to do the same with the US.

All these issues point to something that those – such as liberal global media, and most South Koreans – who see Abe as a hard-rightist overlook. Still, they do have some grounds for their perception.

Ultra-nationalist and re-armer?

Certainly, Abe’s familiar forebears were closely intertwined with Japan’s brutal and exploitative imperial project in Manchuria; Japanese textbooks are notorious for whitewashing Pacific War crimes; and Abe himself is a prominent member of revisionist group Nihon Kaigi.

Still, my Japanese friends don’t consider him an ultra-nationalist; they consider him a right-wing pragmatist.

His 2015 apology to the Korean “comfort women,” viewable on the Japanese Foreign Ministry website, is fulsome, contrite and comprehensive. (Seoul’s incoming Moon Jae-in administration ceased to abide by the agreement, and froze the related funds donated by Japan, two years later.) And mindful of neighboring nations’ sensitivities – and most likely, US warnings – Abe has not visited Yasukuni since 2013.

Granted, his big ambition is revising Article 9 of Japan’s US-mandated, pacifist constitution to allow for fully deployable Japanese armed forces. However, in the last Upper House election he did not acquire the “super majority” he needed to ease this through. And even if he did, it is highly doubtful that he would win the numbers required in a national referendum to make the change.

Still, that may not matter, for Abe is upgrading his forces significantly.

Japan already deploys a formidable fleet of Aegis-equipped destroyers. It possesses excellent satellite reconnaissance and anti-submarine assets, and is buying the world’s second-largest fleet of F-35 stealth fighters (after the US). It has an all-new marine brigade, and is converting two so-called “helicopter destroyers” to aircraft carriers, equipped with the vertical-takeoff variant of the F-35.

This may alarm China, which Japan invaded in 1937, and the Koreas, which Japan colonized in 1910. However, this fear is not shared by other former foes.

Over the past year, Japanese warships have exercised with ships from Australia, India, the United Kingdom and the United States. All welcome a wider Japanese role in the Indo-Pacific region.

Moreover, Japanese vessels flying the “Rising Sun” ensign have been welcomed during port calls in Singapore and even in China in recent months.

The cloud on the horizon

The above suggests that Abe is a respected leader and that Japan – absent some unforeseen circumstance – will see its national brand value rise in the international community between now and next summer.

There is just one fly in the ointment: Seoul-Tokyo relations. Washington is tearing its hair out as its two democratic partners in Northeast Asia lock horns with ever-increasing intensity.

The two are engaged in a historical-diplomatic row that has now impacted both trade – the two are imposing export controls upon each other – and security – Seoul has axed an intelligence-sharing agreement that was the only military pact linking them.

In its latest move, Seoul last week appealed to the International Olympic Committee with a demand that the “Rising Sun” flag be banned from venues next year. While Japan’s national flag is a red disc on a white field, the rising-sun flag, with its red rays, is a hugely popular motif in a country that draws its nickname from the emblem. However, it is also one that is redolent of past militarism.

Thus far, the IOC has remained mum on the issue. This may be because besides Seoul, no other capital among Japan’s former victims and foes is making a similar demand.

This, in turn, suggests that Seoul could find itself globally isolated – it has already irked Washington with its nixing of the intelligence agreement – if it maintains its populist and relentless focus on historical animosities.

In November, Abe will become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. He welcomes the world to Tokyo in 2020 and exits office in 2021. Another olive branch extended to South Korea – an upgrade of his 2015 move – could be a last great, statesmanlike act.

Whether Seoul would accept it is another matter, but if Abe offered it, he could at least say, in good conscience, that he had made one last try.

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