Thawing China-Japan Relations Will Be Good For Rugby

Chinese rugby in Beijing
Rugby on the main stage in Beijing – a pipe dream or a possibility?

China isn’t exactly Japan’s number one fan, and with good reason.  The atrocities Japan committed in China during World War II would test even the most tolerant person’s forgiveness. Unlike Germany, who has acknowledged its war crimes, Japan still keeps face, celebrating its war ‘heroes’ and not really admitting to its the horrific wartime tactics.


With China equally staunch on keeping face, we have one big fat stalemate on our hands.  It’s not helped by the territorial row for the small, uninhabited, yet strategically positioned, potentially oil rich Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands that has flared since 2012, just as the battle for military supremacy in the region heats up.


As the world’s second and third largest economies, its in no one’s interest (except of European and American car makers and Korean electronics, car and culture firms) that the powerful neighbours don’t get along.  Living in China, I see a lot of Chinese residents get bombarded by anti-Japanese propoganda by the onmipresent state media.  It has made quite an impact on the sentiment of consumers here.


As recently as September last year, 53% of Chinese and 29% of Japanese expected a war between the two countries by 2020 according to a poll by China Daily and Genron. 93% of Japanese reported having a negative impression of China, with 87% of Chinese having bad feelings about Japan.  During the past few years where soaring consumption by China helped save many of the world’s economies from the brink post-GFC, Japan’s exports to China were hurting.  Japan’s share of China’s auto industry, for example, was 22% in 2008, dropping to under 15% in 2013, at a time when foreign brands gained almost 10 percentage points overall on domestic brands.


But there are some green shoots starting to show.  A recent Travelzoo survey of wealthy Chinese tourists found that Japan was top of wish list for countries to visit in 2015.  In 2013, it was the tenth most desirable destination. Cultural experiences were cited as the top reason for wanting to visit the country.  That’s a healthy sign that sentiment to the Japanese could be improving from Chinese consumers, particularly with wealthy and worldly consumers who are most likely to want to support rugby union.


Getting to the Point on Rugby

So after the long rambling introduction, onto the point of the article: rugby stands to benefit from happy China-Japan relations.


With Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019, the improving sentiment could see China becoming more aware of the wonderful game of rugby, as its profile increases in Asia.  Given the interest in Japanese cultural attractions, there is always a chance that the curiosity will be stretched to their sports.


Although rugby’s standing in China has improved since the days it was banned – now an official sport of the People’s Liberation Army and an Olympic sport – it still remains a perimeter sport, particularly versus those other foreign ball sports, basketball and football/soccer.  I had optimistically predicted in 2011 that China would have a team in the 2019 Rugby World Cup.  Four years on, I’m afraid this was a pipe dream. It would be fair to say that even American’s NFL has done a better job at raising its profile in China than rugby.


Just as every major consumer brand is chasing the enormous China prize, sporting codes are also hoping to tap into the Chinese consumer opportunity.  Winning just a small share of China’s population could raise global support numbers by a material amount, and with it, television, merchandise and even game day revenue.


Talk to any passionate rugby fan in China, and they will tell you the game is hamstrung by corruption in China – like many things.  Although corruption is slowly being weeded, few are confident that a well-oiled, progressive Chinese Rugby Union will surface any time soon.


While there are some positive initiatives from the IRB in China, I believe many decision makers class the market as just too hard, versus lower hanging fruit such as the U.S.  That’s understandable, China isn’t an easy market to tap for anything, but the next few years present some of the biggest opportunities rugby will have in China for a long time.


The 2019 World Cup will raise rugby’s profile in Asia for a small window around the tournament. Perhaps with Japan getting back on Chinese consumers’ radars, it would be ideal timing to have built a base to push rugby.


Investing more into growing the game in China is a decision for the purse string holders of the World Rugby in Dublin.  It’s a tough decision, but the status quo is unlikely to make an impact.  Rugby is a game for the brave, so let’s hope there are some brave decisions about growing the sport in China to cement it as a truly global sport.


Other articles about rugby in China:

The Chinese Rugby Strategy

Rugby in China: The Chinese team will be playing in the 2019 Rugby World Cup


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