Friday night lights: American football in Japan a high school hit
It’s a little known fact that American football is being played in high schools across Japan by students with a sincere passion for the game.
And like Friday Night Lights, it's often the suburbs and small town backdrops where the game is at it's most feverish.
Japan routed by Team USA's physical might
Catching up with Ryuto Kanda, 18, running-back for Hakusan High School in Yokohama and winner of the MVP award in last season’s Camellia Bowl, we went to see what he’s been doing to prepare for his final season of high school football and to find out what got him started in the first place.
"Football looked cool to me and I knew I was athletic, so I joined the team," he says.
"At first, when we played against the American athletes, their physical size was intimidating -- it was quite difficult to stop their offense.”
Let’s call it impossible. The final score of the Kanto Collegiate Football Association’s Camellia Bowl was 61 (USA) – 0 (Japan). But the Japanese players aren’t giving up anytime soon.
Ko Hirasawa, 50, Director of the International Division of
the Kanto Collegiate Football Association believes American football is here to
“Football is not only an American sport -- it’s the essence of American culture," says Hirasawa.
Support from the highest levels
"The annual Camellia Bowl is an excellent opportunity for a cultural exchange between our two countries. The Americans challenge us to be bigger, faster and stronger,” he says.
The game, held at Kawasaki stadium, was not short on VIP fans. This year’s bowl game brought out U.S. Army Japan Commander, General Francis J. Wiercinski, the Commander of Battle Force 7th Fleet and Carrier Strike Group 5, Admiral Kevin Donegan, U.S. Ambassador John Roos and former Japanese Prime minister Taro Aso.
American football had its beginnings in Japan in 1934 when Paul Rusch, a visiting teacher and missionary from Kentucky helped to form the first football teams at three universities in Tokyo.
It grew in popularity until WWII when play came to a halt. When the war ended, Rusch returned to Japan and the game heated up again. Today, there are over 400 high school teams with more than 15,000 players, including 100 in the Kanto Collegiate Football Association (KCFA).
Masaki-sensei, 27, Kanda’s former football coach and current coach of Shiroyama High School in Kanagawa-ken says, “six out of ten high school football players still play the sport when they get to college.”
All star national teams
For most of the season, which runs from September until January, the Japanese football teams play exclusively against other Japanese teams and the American players from the American School in Japan play against Department of Defense base schools.
The Japanese games take place at Amino-Vital Field in Chofu and Kawasaki Stadium in Kawasaki (Tickets: ¥1,200, ¥500 for high school students, free for junior high students and under) with special free days for foreigners on October 9 and 16 respectively at each stadium.
The KCFA has five divisions with eight colleges in each playing seven games in the regular season. The best team from the KCFA league goes on to the semi-finals against the Hokkaido and Tohoku area lead teams.
The winning team of that game goes on to the Japan Collegiate Championship game in Osaka on December 19 with the victorious team making it to the “Rice Bowl”, Japan’s version of the super bowl which is played in Tokyo Dome (Tel: +81 (0) 3 3450 9360) on January 3 against the Club Team Champions.
The all-stars of both the USA and Japan then face-off on the gridiron in March at the Camellia Bowl.
Football more precious than life
During the pro season, Kanda watches the Minnesota Vikings and studies the movement of their running back but Brett Favre is his favorite player.
“He’s had many crises but I like his never-give-up mind," he says.
Kanda will graduate from high school this March and his high school football days will come to an end. But that doesn’t mean he’ll stop playing.
“Football is more precious than my life. I will play well and become a very famous player in college as well,” says Kanda.
His coach, Morikawa-sensei, 26, agrees. “After graduation, Kanda will go on to play in college and we will hear about his success. Definitely," he says.
When asked if he has any pre-game rituals, Kanda said, “I tell myself five times that I am the best. And then I pray to God.”
To see who are Japan's greatest sporting heroes, click here.