As of 2017, 401 teams are members of the JAFA. At the core of the association are 210 collegiate American football teams comprising eight conferences. The beginning of the sport in Japan dates back to 1934, about half a century after its birth in the United States. Since then, its growth and transformation have continued. What follows is a summary of collegiate football’s eighty-odd year history and evolution in Japan.
Birth of The Sport and the First Match
On November 29, 1934, the first official American football match in Japan was held in Tokyo in a packed 20,000-strong spectator-filled Meiji Jingu Stadium. In response to the proposal of a certain Dr. Paul Frederick Rusch of Rikkyo University, the Tokyo Collegiate American Football Association, consisting of members from Rikkyo University, Meiji University, and Waseda University, was established. The Tokyo all-star team of twenty-six student players including members from Keio University and Hosei University, which both had started preparing to put together a team, took on the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club (YCAC) team and earned a 26-0 shutout victory. The majority of the members of the student All-Star Team were Japanese-American students who had cut their teeth playing barefoot football, and their first American football match would bear out that Japanese-American students were indeed a force to be reckoned with. In contrast, YCAC team included elderly and non-American members including inexperienced French and Belgian nationals, who were overwhelmed by the energy of the student all-star team during the entire game.
The first league competition of the Tokyo Collegiate Association consisted three matches in December, hosting 29 Rikkyo University players, 16 Meiji University athletes, and 21 Waseda University participants; Meiji University won two games to become the first champion.
In the postseason of 1936, the third year after the birth of the sport in Japan, the All-Japan Team travelled to the United States with the support of the fraternal organization Shriner. After arriving in mainland USA following a two-week cruise, they suffered a 6-9 loss to the Southern California high school All-Star Team at the newly-established Gilmour Stadium. On the return trip, they stopped in Honolulu where they salvaged a draw with the Roosevelt High School, Hawaii High School tournament winner. It was the 50-day expedition (Dec. 3 – Jan. 21). Counted as team members only one Japanese and the rest were Japanese-American international students.
Suspension and Comeback
In 1943, the ninth year after the sport’s establishment, as World War II gained momentum, university sports teams were forced to disband under the instructions of the Japanese government For the next two years until the end of the War in August 1945, all sports excluding those involving domestic combat techniques such as Judo, Kendo, and Kyudo (Japanese archery) disappeared from public view.
However, in 1946, soon after the war, American football began making a comeback with a remarkable momentum. In April 1947, Koshien Stadium hosted the Eastern Conference winner, Keio University and the Western Conference winner, Doshisha University in what was to be the first Koshien Bowl College Championship. In January of the following year, the Rice Bowl, an East- West All-Star Game series, was held at Nile Kinnick Stadium, formerly the Meiji Jingu Stadium. These two Bowl Games have continually been held for over seventy years in Japan without interruption.
In the mid-1950s, the number of colleges participating in American football began to gradually increase, and its popularization accelerated in the mid-1960s. The number of member colleges increased from nine after the end of the War to 14 in 1957, when the 12th Koshien Bowl tournament was broadcast across the nation by the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation). Twenty-seven teams were formed in the five years following the total number of colleges reaching 20 in 1965. The sport’s popularity in the 1970’s kept growing among regional universities outside of Kanto (East) and Kansai (West) conferences
Period of Growth and Transformation
The modern football era was ushered in by Utah State University’s (USU) visit to Japan in 1971. USU, led by Coach Chuck Mills, was a powerful team boasting a QB Tony Adams, who would go on to play an active part in the NFL after graduation. They challenged the All-Japan Team in two matches in December after the league’s fall season, and this greatly impacted the
spread of American football and technique improvements in Japan. This match was the Japanese All-Stars’ fourth match against an American team since the pre-war period. However, in contrast to the friendship match in California before the War and the 1964 University of Hawaii (UH) road match in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of American football in Japan, a match noted for the Japanese team’s unpreparedness, this match was significant for the degree to which the All-Japan Team members’ physical strength and skills had improved. Thereafter, a number of strong teams such as UH and Wake Forest University (WF) visited Japan before Brigham Young University’s visit in 1977. This is the way the “College All-Japan”challenge would continue to play out.
The Mills Trophy was established at the 29th tournament in 1974 of the Koshien Bowl as an award to the top college player of the year. The award, which is in honor of the achievements of Coach Mills who came to Japan with USU and WF, has been given to 39 players in 44 tournaments until last year.
The steady spread and improvement of American football in Japan in the 1970s attracted heightened public interest. The Japan Bowl, NCAA East and West All-Star Game was inaugurated in 1976 to commemorate American Revolution Bicentennial. While American football began to appear in advertisements, products, and movies along with regular broadcasting of NFL and NCAA matches, this period also marked the launch of specialized magazines and weekly football comic books.
Restructuring And The New Era
The 1980s not only saw the spread and promotion of the sport, but also the development of football organizations. Club teams of graduate players and many corporate teams were formed as the Japanese economy grew. A Collegiate American Football Federation consisting of eight districts was established in 1980 and the National Football Association (NFA) was established in 1985. For 36 years since its establishment, the Rice Bowl had been enjoyed as an All-Star game. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, however, it was recreated as a National Championships
Tournament pitting the Koshien Bowl college champions against the NFA teams’ champions
At the outset, College Champions one after another continued to take the Rice Bowl title. Following the establishment of the X-League in 1996, however, corporate or club teams with their throng of experienced and proficient players started to dominate. In 2003, after their 20th match, they managed to even up the record to a 10-10 tie. Since then, in the past fifteen games up to the tournament held in January 2018, college teams have suffered 9 consecutive defeats, with only 2 wins and 13 losses. Nevertheless, the college teams’ fighting spirit and solid performance continues to draw much fanfare every year. In 2015, Ritsumeikan University defeated Waseda University 28-27 at the Koshien Bowl; Panasonic beat Fujitsu 24-21 in the Japan X Bowl, the annual X-League championship match; and Panasonic prevailed against Ritsumeikan University 22-19. Recent years have witnessed breathtaking seesaw games, with approximately 500 top-level graduate players joining the X-League every year.
As for the popularization of the sport, the number of university teams belonging to the Japan American Football Association reached 200 in 1989 and the Association grew to its largest ever in 1998 with 237 member universities. These remarkable developments over the last few years mark a veritable dawn of a new era for American football that accompanies its worldwide expansion. In The World Championship of American Football held every four years since the year after the establishment of the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) in 1999, Japan took two consecutive titles in the first and second tournaments. Japan also came second, third, and second in the past three tournaments respectively, ranking second internationally after the United States. In the FISU of the Under-23 whose first tournament was held in 2014, Japan captured second place in the Swedish match and third in the Mexican game. The team is hopeful for its first victory as it battles five countries at this year's tournament.