Through the eyes of a Japanese player and coach

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Photos courtesy of Tomoji Noro
Photos courtesy of Tomoji Noro

Through the eyes of a Japanese player and coach

by: Translated by Jun Sakahira and Takahiro Takiguchi | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: February 22, 2017

It was in 1975 when 15-year-old Tomoji Noro first strapped on a helmet and shoulder pads for his high school football team. No, not soccer. American football – in Japan.

He’ll be the first to tell you that he didn’t have a clue about the sport back then, but “American football” fascinated him. It still does to this day. Now 56, he is an offensive line coach for the Zero Fighters in Japan’s X League.

Let’s just say Noro, A Stars and Stripes employee since 1983, loves football. He lights up when he talks about it and will proudly take out a scrapbook of his playing days.

And he was glued to the television set when the New England Patriots put on the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, shaking his head at the end of game with a big smile on his face: “American football … wow!”

American football in Japan has come a long way in the past four-plus decades. Better players, better coaching, and just a better understanding of the game as a whole. But it’s still an oddity to the average Japanese.

Noro recently sat down with a couple of his colleagues to talk football. And, yes, he broke out his scrapbook.

Q: In 1975, sumo, baseball and soccer were the most watched and played sports in Japan. How did you get involved in football?

A: When I was middle school, on Saturdays I would watch “NFL Pro Film” on television. It was very exciting and interesting to me. Even though I didn’t know the rules, I knew I wanted to play. I loved how they hit one another. So, when I was choosing a high school, I looked for one that had a football team. One of my friends in the neighborhood, who had a football helmet, told me what school to go to. Football was more important to me than the academic curriculum (smiling).

Q: So, you’re 5 feet, 6 inches, weigh 130 pounds and know nothing about football. What did your parents say?

A: They let me make the decision for myself. My parents were always supportive of me and my love for football. Especially my mom. She always came to my games, even though she didn’t know any of the rules.

Q: Tell us about your first year of high school football?

A: Back then, we had to buy our own equipment. We had 70 kids in my class (10th grade) join the team. It was fun, but very hard. Practices were tough, and we played year round. We practiced pretty much every day, except for Saturdays. Even when there was no team practice on Saturdays, we were required to meet for weight training or formation work. My high school football team was very strong and our coaches pushed us very hard. And we pushed ourselves. By the end of my first year, about 50 of the players from my class had quit.

Q: Were you a good player at 15 years old?

A: I actually wanted to be a running back at first, but there were so many other players who could run faster than I did, so I gave up the idea. I was officially a center that first year. It was a very difficult position for me. I had small hands. Most centers hike the ball with one hand. I had to use two. I really didn’t like playing center, but I loved football and worked very hard on the field and in the weight room. There were about 20 official games a year (10 in spring and 10 in fall). The main season was September through December. That first year I played a little bit in the games.

Q: Things changed when you got in 11th grade, didn’t they?

A: I got a lot better and more confident. They also had me play defense … linebacker and defensive end. I loved hitting people. And I hit hard and never backed down. Back then if you started, you played both ways. So, I was starting center and linebacker. I was very happy.

Q: Back then, how was the coaching and how well do you think they did in terms of teaching the fundamentals of football?

A: First of all, there were about 40 high schools on the Kanto Plain with football teams. There was another 30-40 in the Kansai region. We always wanted to beat the Kansai teams. I think, like today, there are different levels of coaches, but I think all coaches tried to get correct and updated information from the U.S., whether it was from books, television, magazines or reaching out to U.S. coaches. I think our coaches provided the players with the right fundamental methods and ways to play football.

Q: You had some opportunities to play against some American teams. Tell us about that?

A: It was in July 1977 when I was in the 11th grade. We had a game against the Yokota High School Panthers. Our coaches really wanted to challenge the Americans. They wanted to see how good our team actually was. Before this game, only selected players from multiple high schools were entitled to battle the American team. But that year, our team was really strong and we were able to play the Americans. They were big and tall. It was really painful when I hit them. But our coaches kept telling us: “Don’t be fearful, be aggressive!” We sent a 6-man rush and blitzed all the time. And we won 22-8. It was the first win for a Japanese team. Ricky Bell, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist from USC the previous season, came to watch. I guess the American team really wanted to win the game.

Q: Tell us about the day of game?

A: It was a great experience and there were about 600 people at the game, including my mom. After the game, we had a BBQ together. We didn’t know each other, and didn’t know what one another was saying, but there were lots a smiles and respect for one another. The Americans gave us T-shirts to commemorate the game. The T-shirts were made by Champion, you know. It was my first time seeing that brand and I thought it was cool. They had Gatorade, too. It was the year when Gatorade was introduced in the U.S. market, and it was the first time any of us Japanese players had seen it. We started drinking it at games the next season, and we were the only ones doing it in Japan. Other teams wondered what drink we had. It was cool.   

Q: The next year you played against a team from Guam, right?

A: Yes, in 12th grade. They came to Japan and played a game with us. It was George Washington High School (not DODEA). Most of them were local Guamanians (Chamorro), but there were three or four white Americans on the team as well. Two of the players, Paul Grant and Ray Stephen stayed over at my home for a week or so.

Q: So, the team came over and home-stayed with the football players on your team. How was that?

A: It was very, very fun. My mother cooked up some good food for them. She cooked American foods to make them feel at home, while also cooking some Japanese foods to give them a taste of the local food culture. I am proud of my mother. She cooked up some great food and really treated them well. We took them to some Japanese restaurants, too.  They were big guys, so they could really eat.

Q: Did you stay in contact with them?

A: I exchanged letters with Paul Grant until I graduated from college. In fact, when I injured by knee during my sophomore year in college, Paul found out about it and gave me a call in the hospital. It really made my day.

Q: Let’s talk about college. You had one thing on your mind: football. What about your parents?

A: When my parents and I met with a high school counselor about my college future, my parents told him that they would like to send me to any college that let me keep playing football, because I had nothing without football. My parents knew how much I loved the sport. My high school recommended me, based on my sports achievements, to Teikyo University. Teikyo gave me a scholarship. As my high school football team was so strong, all the starters of the team went to college on scholarship. Some of the larger sized players went to Division I colleges, while I had to go to a Division II school because I was not that big.

Q: How was it being a football player in college? Was it like being “the big man on campus?”

A: (Laughs) Yeah, we were treated pretty well. Football definitely came first. My high school coaches, who rarely went to see student’s games, came to see me play my last college came. I was really moved and grateful to see them, though I was a little sad knowing I would never suit up again. They had raised me to be strong through football. They gave me the joy of victory.

Q: What is the biggest difference between football now and during your playing days?

A: The amount of information. Today, you can get the latest information on equipment, rules and teams so easily. Before, the information was limited. Many Japanese coaches today have experience learning football at American colleges, and it shows. Major Japanese universities, such as Rikkyo, Waseda and Hosei, have partnerships with American colleges - UCLA, USC and University of Hawaii, respectively. Although Japanese colleges can’t play against American college teams because of NCAA rules, more and more Japanese students are going American colleges to play football. Currently, there is one Japanese player at Hawaii, one at UCLA and another at Arizona. In fact, the Japanese players at UCLA and Arizona are brothers who were from Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Q: In 2004 you started coaching. How did that happen?
 
A: A friend of mine was a player on the Blue Thunder, a Division II team in the Corporate League. They had a big team and they were short on coaches, so he introduced me to the coaching staff. They asked me to join, so I did. Coaching a team is a very pleasant and rewarding for me. Since I played on very strong teams, I thought I could teach younger players. I really enjoy it.

Q: When coaching, do you ever get the itch to get on the field and play?

A: (Big smile) Of course. In fact, one day I actually suited up so I could show them the proper way to tackle. They were terrible, so I thought that would be the best way (bigger smile). They were very awkward and were trying to tackle with their hands and didn’t know how to lead with their head and shoulders. I was 47 at the time. They were in their 20s. It felt really good. I beat them pretty good (huge smile and a chuckle).

Q: What’s your coaching schedule like?

A: We practice three hours (8-11 a.m.) every Saturday and Sunday from February to December. We have a spring season and a fall season where we play five games each. During the offseason, coaches are usually recruiting new players or doing other team management work, while players are training by themselves.

Q: What’s the future of football in Japan?

A: I hope the sport will become as popular as soccer and baseball. But, right now, that’s not going to happen until the Japanese people understand the game and have a passion for it. And that’s not going to happen until the mainstream media publicizes it. The best thing that could happen is for a Japanese player to make it to the NFL, or for a Japanese team to be so dominate that players start appearing on television shows and become popular. The X League has to find a way to make itself standout to the Japanese public. It’s a wonderful sport. Why wouldn’t you love it?

The history of football in Japan

Kantoh Collegiate Football Association

American Football has a much longer tradition in Japan than in Europe, where league competition did not start until the end of the 70’s. The history of American Football in Japan goes back to 1934 when Paul Rusch, a teacher and missionary from Kentucky, who came to Japan in 1925 to help rebuild the Yokohama and Tokyo YMCAs that were destroyed in a 1923 earthquake, George Marshall, an athletic teacher at Tokyo based Rikkyo University, and two military attaches at the U.S. embassy, Alexander George and Merritt Booth, helped to form the first football teams at three universities in Tokyo (Waseda, Meiji, Rikkyo).

In November of 1934, the first football game was played between an all-star team of the three Tokyo universities and a team of the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, consisting of Americans and Britains living in Japan. The Japanese college team won the game.

American football quickly gained popularity in Japan. In 1937, a game between college all-star teams from eastern and western Japan drew a crowd of about 25.000 spectators. The reason for the success of the rough North American game in mild-mannered Japan might be that American football offers a combination of power, technical precision, discipline and team spirit that is hard to find in other sports, and that most parts of this combination (precision, discipline, team spirit) match well with traditional Japanese values.

During World War II, American Football in Japan came to a halt. Rusch, the “Father of American football in Japan,” had to leave Japan. Soon after the war American football in Japan resumed and Rusch returned in 1945. During the following years, high school and junior high school teams were formed.

Today more than 17.000 players participate in competition for about 400 teams. The biggest number of teams and players compete in college football. Like in U.S. college football, players in Japanese college football have four years of eligibilty. There are two college football leagues, the Kanto League with teams from eastern Japan and the Kansai League with teams from western Japan. Each league has different divisions. The Division I of the Kanto League has two Conferences (A and B). The champions of the two leagues battle for the college championship in the Koshien Bowl in December.

The highest level of American Football in Japan is the X League, consisting of true company teams and club teams sponsored by companies. The company league was founded in 1981, and since 1996 has been called X League. The amateur league means the players do not play for money.

Like the college leagues, the X League has different divisions. The Division I has three regional divisions (East, Central, West). The two top teams of each division advance to the playoffs, called the Final 6. The championship game is called Japan X Bowl and is held in December.

The X League champion then plays against the college champion in the Rice Bowl on January 3. The Rice Bowl used to be a game between college all-star teams from eastern and western Japan. Since the 1983 season, it has been the Japanese national championship game.

Read the related articles:
Three takes on Japan's X-League
Tomodachi Bowl to be held March 12: Competition, camaraderie in Tokyo’s suburbs