Strengthening identity and relationships through te reo and tikanga Māori

Rongorito Ellison (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrakei) and her husband Leon Ellison have been engaging in Asia intermittently since 2014 and have recently relocated there with their children for Leon’s professional rugby career.
Leon, Rongorito and their tamariki.

Leon, Rongorito and their tamariki.

The two are fiercely proud of their Māoritanga, having been raised bilingually in whānau that understand the centrality of Māori education to Māori success and cultural longevity.

Rongorito’s Mum and Dad were champions of the Māori language revitalisation movement within their iwi, Ngāti Raukawa.

Rongorito’s mum Janey Wilson still plays a pivotal role as the current principal of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rito, which Rongorito attended as a child along with the associated Te Kākano o Te Kura Kōhanga Reo. And Leon’s mum has been vocal in the development and advocacy of evidence-based information and resources for parents, mainly Māori, at the government level.

Therefore, it was only natural for the two of them to want to ensure the same for their children, and so this year they took the step of establishing the first Māori kōhanga reo in Japan, Te Kōhanga Reo o Nakagami, which is a geographic indicator of the town where the kōhanga is situated, presided over by the mana of Mount Fuji.

Since establishing the kōhanga reo they have garnered a lot of interest from local Japanese friends and associates who visit with their children for whakawhanaungatanga or mutual cultural exchange facilitated by the tamariki who are learning to conversate with each other. The practices of whakawhanaungatanga at Te Kōhanga Reo o Nakagami are similar to those which you would expect to find in New Zealand, “Karakia, mihimihi, waiata, and other activities - all in te reo.”

The relocation of their whānau and entire cultural exchange has been a very positive experience for the Ellison whānau, who are keen to maintain and share their Māoritanga, while adopting local etiquette that aligns well with their fundamental Māori values.

“We are culturally aware of their practices and wanting to take those in.

“There is a strong similarity in the vowel sounds, which helps in learning language. For example, they can pronounce my name with ease, which is awesome to hear. It’s quite different to what I’m used to in New Zealand.”

“I've found them to be so welcoming, kind and caring. Being Māori in this space has been really quite an amazing experience. I found we've got quite similar values, like respect for the elderly and the tuakana - teina system for nurturing and mentorship, which they call Kohai (teina) - Sempai (tuakana). Also, the use of the term “nē?” which is used to pose the question, “Is that so?” in both Japanese and Māori.”

Overwhelmingly, there is a feeling of manaakitanga, of feeling welcomed and at home, which the Japanese extend generally to all; however, it seems a special level of warmth is extended to Māori, which Rongorito describes as “a standout point for them”.

Rongorito has found that the presence of the kōhanga reo and the commitment of the whānau to their Māoritanga has been well received. The warm reception has been intensified lately given the success of Jamie Joseph and the Brave Blossoms with their World Cup campaign.

“They're quite intrigued and interested in te ao Māori and te reo Māori especially with the Rugby World Cup. It's so multicultural but being Māori stands out and is of extra interest.”

In the future she’d love to see kōhanga expand in Japan, given the number of Māori living and thriving there, particularly in her husband’s vocation - professional rugby and sports.

To learn more about Te Kōhanga Reo o Nakagami contact:

Jamie Joseph and the Brave Blossoms

The success of Jamie Joseph in Japan is itself noteworthy. Japan demonstrated confidence in Joseph to lead their national rugby team, the Brave Blossoms to their most successful Rugby World Campaign to date. Japan’s confidence in him was in spite of, or perhaps because of, his Māoritanga - we can only surmise.

Japan playing Samoa at the 2019 Rugby World Cup

Japan playing Samoa at the 2019 Rugby World Cup

The strength of Jamie Joseph’s Māori identity is undeniable. He and his wife both descend from a long line of former New Zealand Māori All Blacks and Joseph was also a former coach. He is also known for his high standards and no nonsense attitude - a characteristic described in Māori as “tō tika” meaning direct, to the point, no mucking around.

In line with the principles of mentorship (tuakana teina), and manaaki (fostering mana in others) he is known for realising the leadership potential in his players – a characteristic that is widely touted as a sign of true leadership.

He also brings his taha wairua or spiritual side to his role with ease, which the Japanese are also very comfortable with.

Before the 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign, each Brave Blossom was gifted a pendant in the form of a patu, which many placed at their shrines in prayer – a symbol of the way in which the two cultures are able to merge so seamlessly.

Finally, in accordance with the principle of reciprocity and utu Jamie Joseph has chosen to turn down the opportunity to compete for New Zealand rugby’s main job and stick with the country that gave him the opportunity to rise as a national coach and lead Japan into their next Rugby World Cup campaign. This speaks volumes to the depth of the relationship that has ensued between himself and Japan and demonstrates the exponential potential for greatness that comes when Māori operate as Māori in Asia.