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Dissertation Project Khanizadeh (Abstract)

National Identity Discourses in Japan: Challenging Mono-ethnicity in the 2019 Rugby World Cup

(Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Gabriele Vogt)


Large-scale international sporting events potentially trigger national identity discourses. Domestic media attention fosters an increased debate over self-perception and external perception of national identity and thus contributes to the process of nation branding. This highly dynamic period of renegotiating a national identity in the spotlight of international attention spans over months, starting in the run-up to the event, and stretching all the way to its evaluation in public discourse. Japan has already experienced a dense moment of nation branding around the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, when the nation was able to present itself to the international community as a consolidated democracy, hospitable and technologically advanced.

More than half a century later, in 2020, Tokyo was scheduled to host the Olympic Games once again. The Rugby World Cup of 2019 was planned to serve as a quasi-rehearsal in terms of renewing Japan’s national identity discourses. More than anything, consciously or unconsciously, the Rugby World Cup tackled the long-prevailing myth of Japan’s ethnic homogeneity. Today, in fact, Japan’s migrant population is growing, already every tenth marriage in Japan is multi-ethnic, and in the world of sports athletes with multiple ethnic backgrounds, such as famous tennis player Naomi Osaka proudly represent Japan in international sport events. However, the myth of mono-ethnicity still resonates with some segments in Japanese society and with conservative or even right-wing politicians. The resulting contention is brought center-stage through an intense media coverage of diversity celebrated in an international sport event and may ultimately lead to permanent changes in the self-perception of a nation state.

I argue that the Rugby World Cup held in Japan in 2019 was an event of such power. The Brave Blossoms, Japan’s national rugby team, was a multi-ethnic team which represented Japan on the sporting grounds with outstanding success. Their journey through the tournament was broadly covered in the media, and they were cheered on by frenetic fans across the country. Their credo #oneTeam was voted to be hashtag of the year 2019 in Japan. Triggered by the success of the ethnically diverse Brave Blossoms, the public discourse on what it means to be Japanese was intensified within the broader society and spilled into the world of politics. This PhD thesis identifies institutions and actors involved in this intensified discourse, as well as their agendas and political strategies. Based on Micheal Billig’s theory of banal nationalism (1995), this thesis aims to identify, explain, and contextualize the dynamics of Japan’s national identity. Factors supporting the preservation of established identities as well as factors influencing a reform of national identity will be considered. To this end, the thesis draws on discursive institutionalism and critical discourse analysis.