Three takes on Japan's X-League
What kind of sport requires countless breaks, hard-to-follow rules and formations, and repeated tussles between sumo wrestler-like giant men in hardhats and protective gear scrambling for a tiny oval-shaped ball?
To be honest, that was my take on American football. And in Japan, I am sure I was not alone in that sentiment.
“Amefuto,” as we call it, is still a minor sport in Japan. When people think of Japan and sports, there’s sumo, baseball and soccer among others.
Despite being a relatively unknown sport to many in the country, the Japanese national team has won the American Football World Cup twice (1999, 2003). Since the U.S. entered the event, held every four years, the Americans are undefeated and have won the title in 2007, 2011 and 2015. In 2007, the U.S. edged out Japan 23-20 in double overtime.
The 2017 Rice Bowl, held January 3 at the Tokyo Dome, was my first taste of “amefuto.” The Rice Bowl is known as the highest football game in Japan, where the college champions take on the champs of the X League, a non-professional corporation league.
Although I didn’t really know what I was seeing, I was immediately captivated by the enthusiastic atmosphere when I got down to the field. I saw players in red and blue helmets passing and catching, while cheerleaders were showing their splendid acrobatic dancing to roaring music. Most of the seats were occupied in either red or blue, as the Fujitsu Frontiers (red) battled the Kwansei Gakuin University Fighters (blue) for the Rice Bowl title.
Despite my lack of knowledge, as soon as the game kicked off and all the players rushed in various directions, their powerful and speedy moves, along with the sounds of crashing helmets made me really excited.
“You don’t need to know all the rules about game in detail at first,” says Ko Hirasawa, director of Kantoh Collegiate Football Association. “You just remember - it is a kind of game of battle to take the enemy’s territory. So, you can enjoy the game by focusing on how the offense pushes into the opponent’s territory and how the opponent’s defense covers the attack.”
Following his advice, I tried to see the game as a whole. I noticed that there were not only giant players, but many small players on the field. The smaller players would run behind their much larger teammates, avoiding the opponent’s attack and carrying the ball down the field little by little. How clever! That’s when I realized football needs smaller players, not only giants, and sophisticated strategy and teamwork are indispensable to win.
“American Football is a profound sport – spectators can enjoy the game regardless of their level of knowledge and interest,” Hirasawa said. “As you learn more about the sport, you are able to enjoy different aspects of it.”
According to Hirasawa, Americans are often recruited to play in the X League. Rules strictly limit the number of foreign players to four per team, and no more than two are allowed to play at the same time.
Although I was supporting the college champion, the Frontiers overwhelmed the Fighters in speed, power and strategy throughout the game, and eventually won 30-13.
The Rice Bowl gave me a good opportunity to discover football - a fascinating and attractive sport. It may not reach the level of baseball or sumo wrestling, but as more and more people begin to watch, I think it can become another popular sport in Japan.
When I studied abroad in the U.S. for my senior year of high school, I was much like the majority of the Japanese population: I knew nothing about American football.
As a person who has now spent several years in the States, I’ve watched a number of NFL and college football games – live and on television - so I understand this sport better than the average Japanese. All many Japanese know of American football is Eyeshield 21, a manga-comic that was on the best-selling manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump from 2002-2009.
When it comes to American Football in Japan, however, I had never had a chance to watch a game before attending the Rice Bowl on Jan. 3. Growing up, Japanese boys know the rules of baseball and soccer without trying, as such sports are a big part of the culture; American football – not so much.
It was during the NFL playoffs during my first year in the U.S. when I finally started understanding and enjoying the game. My host family was watching, so I figured I might as well, too.
When I returned to Japan in 2005, I was fortunate enough to catch an NFL preseason game between the Colts and the Falcons. I did not know many players, but had heard of Peyton Manning, so I decided to go. Since it was a preseason game, it wasn’t serious, but I was glad to finally see a game live. Aside from Americans at the game, I was really surprised to see so many Japanese fans enjoying it as well.
That was 12 years ago, and I see more and more Japanese wearing NFL apparel nowadays. Football is getting more recognition here; even those who do not understand the game, tune in to watch the Super Bowl halftime show (if they can on Monday morning-Japanese Standard Time).
I thought the concept of the Rice Bowl, which pits the college champion against the corporate champion, was very interesting. X-League is not technically a professional league, but it is the highest level of American football in Japan. This idea is similar to the one talked about, but never attempted, in the U.S.: Could the NCAA’s best beat the NFL’s worst? Alabama against Cleveland, anyone?
For football to become more popular, I think a Japanese player needs to make it to the NFL. Over the past 20 years, there have been many successful Japanese baseball and soccer players in the world’s top leagues. Rugby was in a similar situation to American football until 2015, when the Japanese national team surprised the world by beating South Africa in the World Cup. The upset was broadcasted as the “greatest upset in Rugby history,” and made people take notice.
I think many Japanese admire foreign countries and the sports they play. When there are Japanese athletes who can compete at the world’s highest level, like tennis star Kei Nishikori, a sport gets more popular and more media attention. That is something American Football in Japan is lacking. The sport has been around for decades. The potential for more popularity is there, but it may take a lot of time.
Many college football fans will remember the name Devin Gardner. The University of Michigan record holder for passing yards in a game (503), he sported the No. 98 as he led the Wolverines offense in 2012-13. After a cup of coffee with the NFL, Gardner now finds himself quarterbacking the Sagamihara Rise in Japan’s X-League. Stripes Japan recently caught up with Gardner to talk life, Japan and of course, football.
Q: You played at Michigan and had tryouts with the Patriots and Steelers - how did you end up in Japan? And did how did you find out about playing here?
Gardner: After getting injured in my first game with the Steelers, I was out of football for a little bit. After being offered a CFL contract, my agent said he had an interesting opportunity and thought why not experience something different!
Q: How’s the quality of football in Japan versus that in the U.S. (What level of college would you compare it to)?
Gardner: The biggest different besides the obvious size and speed, is that in the U.S., people have been playing football forever. Everyone starts really young so there are a lot of small intricacies that just come natural to players in the US. that aren’t quite as natural yet to most Japanese players!
Q: What’s the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make living here?
Gardner: Communication mostly - and I feel like I’ve done a great job adjusting in that area, as well as many other areas!
Q: Your team is mostly Japanese – what’s it like to have that language barrier with your own teammates?
Gardner: It’s different for sure, but I’m a firm believer that kindness and respect are both a part of a universal language, so that makes it a lot easier!
Q: What has it meant to have a former teammate (Jeremy Gallon) here with you?
Gardner: It’s been great from not only a communication standpoint, but also a skills standpoint, because he makes the team better!
Q: What’s the long-term plan for your playing career? Do you see yourself eventually suiting up for an NFL team?
Gardner: The way I live my life, which has worked out thus far, won’t allow me to give an exact answer to that question! I try not to concern myself with things that are out of my control and only worry about what I can directly control, and what’s in the immediate future! Whatever comes along, I’ll deal with it, and I’m sure I’ll be prepared to do so!
Devin Gardner - photos courtesy of Sagamihara Rise