When is a Japanese citizen not Japanese?

When he plays in the Japan Rugby Top League.

Isaac Ross (ロス・アイザック), Colin Bourke (ボーク・コリン雷神) and Brackin Karauria-Henry (ヘンリー・ブラッキン) are all Japanese passport holders. They have all made a commitment to stay in this country — no mean feat given they have 13 children between them, all of whom are in the Japanese schooling system — and they all want to remain here.

The problem is all three have played international rugby for another country and a change in the way the Japan Rugby Football Union registers players means they find themselves in limbo in terms of the Top League, even if two of them proudly wear the Japan jersey in sevens competitions.

Prior to August 2016, anyone with a Japanese passport was regarded as a local player even if they had played for another country.

So for example, ex-Wallaby Daniel Heenan and former Tonga international Fraser Anderson — neither of whom are eligible to play for the Brave Blossoms — are not part of the foreign quota at Panasonic Wild Knights and Kobe Kobelco Steelers, respectively.

That quota currently sees clubs allowed to have two players capped by another country, three foreign-born players who are eligible to play for Japan and one Asian passport holder on the field at any one time.

Japanese passport holders who have not played for another country are not included in the above and as such some teams have been fielding starting XVs with 10 or so foreign-born players.

That, supporters of the rule say, is why the new rule needed to be introduced. "Players who cannot play for Japan because they have played for another country should not take the place of a Japanese player."

But as Ross points out, the system is being exploited by the clubs and players, who have no desire to stay here long term or play for their adopted country, but who are part of the "eligible to play for Japan" status.

Current World Rugby regulations state that a player must reside in a country for at least five years before they are eligible to play for it. But the Japan Rugby Football Union deems anyone coming here who has not played for another country "eligible to play for Japan."

"We had a player here at NTT Communications (Shining Arcs) who was in Japan for just two years. He kept a Japanese player out of the starting team even though he himself was never going to play for Japan," said Ross, who played eight tests for the All Blacks prior to coming to Japan.

"And yet someone who has shown their commitment to Japan like me, has shown loyalty and benefited the Japanese game is being punished."

Ross came to Japan in 2011. He started the process to get a passport in 2015 and eventually received it in 2017. However, the previous year's law change has put him and his club in an awkward position.

"In the past it wasn't such an issue. But we recently signed Malcom Marx (a member of the South Africa side that won the Rugby World Cup last year) and (former Australia international) Christian Lealiifano. The club tells me I am the first-choice lock but for the best dynamics of the team Malcolm and Christian have to start."

Supporters of the new rule say the three players are simply looking after themselves as not being part of the foreign quota will get them more playing time and a bigger paycheck.

But as Ross, whose youngest two children were both born in Japan, points out, "in any job if you upskill yourself it makes you more valuable."

And as all three point out, while getting Japanese citizenship is no easy matter — given the necessity requirements such as paying tax for at least five years, the limited time you can spend out of the country and the language requirement — it is still something many aspire to.

"I know a number of (uncapped) players who have received passports in the last few years who were never going to get into the Japan squad," said Ross. "So they are potentially blocking local Japanese players. It makes no sense."

And getting into the Japan squad, be it XVs or sevens, is where the application of the rule — which at this stage only affects these three players — really makes no sense.

Because for the last few months, Bourke and Karauria-Henry — who previously played the abbreviated game for New Zealand and Australia, respectively — have actually been part of Japan's extended sevens squad as they prepare for the Tokyo Olympics.

Under World Rugby regulations, a player can transfer their allegiance from one country to another if they play in a certain number of Olympic qualifying tournaments and hold a passport for the country they wish to play for.

"I was headhunted by (sevens coach Kensuke) Iwabuchi-san with an aim of playing the Olympics and then once being qualified for Japan, playing 15s for them," said Bourke, whose salary for the last few months has been subsidized by the JRFU, the same organization that is not recognizing he is Japanese for Top League purposes.

Like Ross, Bourke has committed to his club and Japan and has remained hopeful since starting the paperwork to get his citizenship in 2017 that the rule will be overturned.

"When I came here, I set myself three goals. To learn the language, to play 100 games for Ricoh (Black Rams) and get a passport as that meant longevity up here," said Bourke, who added he would love to remain here as coach once his playing days are done.

The trio have sent a letter to the JRFU in which they state they “fully support the actions to protect and grow homegrown talent.

"However, considering the change of other foreign player related rules and the changes in the general rugby environment since the rule was introduced the current rule no longer acts in the best interests of Japan rugby or protects homegrown talent as it originally intended.

"Considering this, we support the relaxation, modification or removal of this rule to allow a fair and balanced environment while continuing to protect the future of Japanese rugby."

Bourke's club, Ricoh, have said they will support the move, while NTT Communications have expressed an interest in backing Ross and Karauria-Henry.

But until a decision is made, the future of the trio, who are all at home in Japan during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, is up in the air.

Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News.