Thursday, November 27, 2008

Random Japaneseness, pigskin edition

With all due apologies to UBM, who has pioneered the art of posting about random Japanese stuff.

But I learned something today. And I feel the need to share. What can I say? I'm particularly thankful this year.

Believe it or not, American football has quite a following in Japan. The game took root in Japan in the 1930s, when a group of Americans helped to form the first football teams at three universities in Tokyo. In November 1934, the first football game was played between an all-star team comprised of players from the three Tokyo universities and a team of Americans and Britains living in Japan.

The Japanese team won the game. And from there, it didn't take long for the sport to become popular. Within three years, an all-star game between college teams from eastern and western Japan drew a crowd of 25,000.

Not surprisingly, American football came to a stop during World War II. But once the fighting was over, one of the American missionaries - Paul Rusch - who'd help to introduce football in the 1930s returned to Japan to get the games going again.

Today, more than 17,000 players compete for about 400 teams. Most of the players compete on the college level. There are two college football leagues, the Kanto League with teams from eastern Japan and the Kansai League with teams from western Japan. Every December, the two league champions meet for the college title game at the Koshien Bowl.

Imagine that: a true college football champion determined through a de-facto playoff. Sounds crazy, right? How could the Japanese get right what we've willfully allowed to go wrong?

The Japanese also have a semi-professional football league, the X League. That league's championship game is also held in December and called the Japan X Bowl. The X League champion then moves on to face the college champion in the Rice Bowl for a true national championship game. These games tend to be pretty evenly divided; the pro team had won 13 of the 23 games played through 2006.

Player of note? Well, if your team is looking for a running back, it could do worse than to take a look at Obic Seagulls running back Takuya Furutani. Though a little on the small side at 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds, Furutani rushed for 246 yards and five touchdowns in the 2006 Rice Bowl. Furutani apparently had a cup of coffee with the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League. I'm not quite sure what happened from there because, well, I don't read Japanese.

Anyway, I learned all this today while watching an interview with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue on C-Span. He was speaking to a group at the Robert Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.

Good times. I can only imagine watching Japanese football is a helluva lot more entertaining than watching the Lions on Thanksgiving.

UPDATE: Just to emphasize the point, if you get a chance and you're a fan of the NFL, please make sure to take a look at the interview with Tagliabue. He comes off as a smart, thoughtful, nuanced man. I had forgotten he was once a lawyer. And I never knew that he remains one of the all-time leading rebounders at Georgetown University.

His only unsatisfying answers came when he was asked about ways to improve the numbers of minorities and women in the ranks of coaches and administrators in the league. I think he believes too much in the goodwill and fairness of the marketplace - that NFL teams will do the right thing without a nudge. But other than that, I came away extremely impressed.

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