Cultural difference - not indifference - the key

Professional rugby player Tamati Ellison (Kāi Tahu, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Wehiwehi, Ngāti Tama) is very comfortable in Asia, having spent ten years living in Japan together with his wife Meremaraea (Ngāti Mākea, Ngāti Kainuku) and their five children.
Tamati Ellison and his family taking a group selfie at a sportsground

Tamati and his family in Japan

“When we first moved to Japan in 2010 our son was one and now he’s 11...two of our daughters were born in Japan,” Meremaraea proudly recounts.

Tamati’s professional rugby career began in 2003 with the Wellington Lions whom he has now returned to New Zealand to coach during the 2020 season.

From his early playing career in the Lions, it was a speedy trajectory to the Wellington Hurricanes, the New Zealand Sevens and the All Blacks, before playing for a number of premier rugby sides in New Zealand, Australia and then Japan, where the commitment to professional rugby is perhaps one of the strongest in the world.

“The game in Japan is definitely changing. Pre-World Cup and since the World Cup the Japanese are looking to establish a new super rugby-type competition, which they would like to be the premier competition in the world.”

It’s this desire that opens Japan up to the search for global talent, including Māori who inevitably form a significant part of the picture. In his June 2019 report New Zealand and Japan rugby: A blossoming affair, Radio NZ sports reporter Joe Porter describes Japan as a “leading destination for New Zealand players and coaches”.

When you look at the commercial opportunities presented by the popularity of the sport in Japan it’s not hard to see why. Hurricanes chief executive Avan Lee put it all into perspective when he explained, "Off the back of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, how well the Japanese performed to beat South Africa. Then they played Scotland in the next game and 25 million people watched it live in Japan. An All Blacks game in New Zealand on average it will only be watched by 600,000 people live."

In the elite field of Japanese professional rugby, you don’t last ten years without doing something right. Yet when asked to describe his success in Japan, the former All Black and New Zealand Rugby Sevens player exudes humility – a trait highly prized among Māori. It’s likely their strong cultural values that have set Tamati and Meremaraea apart and enabled them to thrive.

“What [the Japanese] have is culture...The easiest part for both of us is because we’re Polynesian and we’ve been brought up in our culture so when you arrive in a country that is really strong in their culture you have a strong respect and empathy for the things that they do.”

For Tamati and Meremaraea, it was their comfort with and acceptance of cultural differences as opposed to cultural indifference that set them apart.

Whereas other international players would “...always question why things are done in different ways. For Māori, we have an understanding that there’s more than one way.”

For Tamati and Meremaraea, the strength of Japanese culture in every facet of life, including sport is a source of inspiration and mana mōtuhake.

“What the Japanese do that is uniquely Japanese is really deeply ingrained in the way they operate day to day. As a colonised country, we have to decide what that means for us and how we tell our story. What are we doing in New Zealand to define who we are and keep our culture strong?”

One example of values that resonate with Māori is kohai-sempai, which resembles the tuakana-teina mentoring system and which Tamati describes as a strong cultural norm evident in sport and Japanese life generally.

“Your senpai's role is to mentor and guide you through your life. Kohai-sempai is lifelong.”

A crows at a Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup match

Tamati: “What the Japanese do that is uniquely Japanese is really deeply ingrained in the way they operate day to day."

The enduring sometimes intergenerational nature of responsibility and values systems is also well aligned with Māori culture.

“A lot of the things that we believe in will carry on after us. It’s easy for us to connect to timeless relationships with Papatūānuku (Earth Mother) and the Atua (Gods), so it’s easy for us to connect to that way of thinking.”

A further Japanese concept that is big in sport and resonates with Māori culture is wā: balance and harmony.

“As a coach and as a player you sometimes disrupt the wā (the flow and harmony). Over here, harmony trumps everything…Silence is a big one.  Instead of saying ‘no’ Japanese tend to avoid conflict in the moment by letting things rest. You may not understand some of their decisions right now but over time ( if you are here long enough) you start to appreciate their foresight and consideration of the bigger picture.

“If you think of pōwhiri, we have an understanding where you let someone have their full kōrero and we listen..this is important in the coaching style. The Japanese are also prepared to listen.”

When asked what advice he would give future players and those wishing to live and thrive in Japan Tamati says, “If I was to advise, come here with an open mind. Be ready to learn and work hard. Most importantly, as Māori hold on to what is uniquely you.”