Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

“Speed Like the Wind”

July 24th, 2009 · 7 Comments


After receiving word that a team of Notre Dame pigskin alums will soon take on Japan’s national football team, we got to wondering about the uniquely American sport’s history in the Land of the Rising Sun. Our natural assumption was that it was brought over during the post-World War II occupation. But it was, in fact, another cataclysm that ushered in the gridiron era in Japan:

The history of American Football in Japan goes back to 1934 when Paul Rusch, a teacher and missionary from Kentucky (USA), 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 US 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.

Yet as in the rest of the world, football has remained a minor sport in Japan—certainly far outshone by that other American export, baseball, which came to Japan during the Meiji Era.

So what is it about pigskin that has made it so difficult to translate to other cultures? The stock explanation is that soccer got most places first, and thus crowded out the demand for similar sports. But that doesn’t appear to have been the case in Japan.

Could it be that even America’s (and Microkhan’s) love affair with tackle football is something of an accident? It’s easy to forget that professional football was a minor sport until the 1960s, outshone by baseball, boxing, and even horse racing. We wonder if our early adoption of television (and, in turn, couch potato-ism) came just in time to lift football to the exalted heights of America’s favorite spectator sport—if nothing else, the pastime is perfectly tailored for the tube.

Also, the way our colleges and universities get funded seems to have played a key role. Alumni donations and corporate funding are so key to swelling endowments, and the competition for students (especially those willing to pay the full sticker price) is intense. Pumping up football teams has always been an excellent way for schools to bring in dollars, since the relatively rare games (just eleven or twelve per year) can double as alcohol-laced brand builders/fundraisers.

We do wonder whether we’ll ever live to see a pigskin World Cup. If one were held today, who would make the semifinals other than the U.S. and Canada? Judging by the footage above, the Japanese teams seem to have some, uh, interior size issues.

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    I bet Australia could put together a team that could make the semi finals. Maybe some of the formerly American outposts like the Marshall Islands or Samoa too. (even though I am not sure they play it now)

    Interesting that American Football was brought to Meiji, Waseda, and Rikkyo. I wonder if it would have caught on better if Keio had been included. I think the Waseda – Keio rugby rivalry has probably kept that sport alive in Japan far longer than it would have otherwise. On the other hand Japanese Universities have clubs for EVERYTHING (hand shadow theater for example) so maybe the University scene is not really a good measure of popularity.

  • scottstev

    Having picked up soccer late and started recently playing in adult rec leagues, I think the ease of organizing a game gives soccer its universal appeal. All you need is a spherical ball and feet. You can easily play solo, to small pickup games to a full 11 on a side with no need for refs or formal organization. With everyone playing the game, spectators can enjoy high-level play. And thanks to satellite TV, the Premier League can be watched everywhere.

    These same factors are what’s allowing basketball to become the 2nd universal sport.

    While we have a culture of flag/touch-football here in the States, you need about 10 players total for decent game. It’s hard to grow a sport with those barriers to entry. Plus, flag rules are much different than organized games. So you’d have to teach the real game, then build a pickup culture based on simulacrum. With soccer and b-ball, the difference between a pickup and organized is minimal.

  • buskertype

    I suspect Mexico might field a strong team. Apparently college football is getting bigger there.

    Possibly Australia?

    I’ve always wondered if some of the high-ranking sumo wrestlers could make it in the NFL as blitzing specialists. There’s been a long history of association between football and wrestling in the US, with a lot of highschool wrestling teams serving as off-season training programs for the football team. I wonder if the Japanese national Football team is stocked with washed out sumo wrestlers?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @buskertype: I’ll have a post about your last question next week. Keep an eye peeled.

    In haste, I neglected to realize that, yes, of course NFL players would be able to compete for their home nations. So American Samoa could be pretty formidable. (Much as the Domincan’s World Cup squad is chock full of all-stars.) Especially if Troy Polamalu opted to play for AS instead of the USA.

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