Too many Japanese coaches and players refer to the fact that Japanese athletes are smaller than most others. All too often, it’s an excuse that doesn’t carry weight and it’s wonderful when Japanese athletes transcend their physical limitations with a belief in their abilities. It’s not what you can’t do; it’s what you can do. Just look at Japan volleyball star Yoshie Takeshita or basketball player Yuta Tabuse. Short in their sport, but accepted as great athletes. (And if you want a non-Japanese example, try soccer superstar Lionel Messi, who was once told he was too short to play soccer).
So, your initial reaction to Japan’s American Football League—X League—might be: The boys ain’t big enough. You might be surprised therefore to hear that Japan won the first two editions of American Football’s World Cup in 1999 and 2003 and took the silver medal in 2007 (losing the final in 2OT to the United States). Earlier this year, they won the 2011 bronze medal in Vienna after narrowly losing their semifinal against Canada 31-27. Japan beat Mexico 17-14 in the match for third place.
This year is the 40th anniversary of organized American football in Japan. Corporate football games started in 1971, the National Football Association was established in 1985 and X League—read excellence, expert and exciting—started in 1996 (evolving from the Japan American Football League). The league is now well established and going strong, and looking to get even bigger.
There are approximately 20,000 registered players in Japan, 218 university teams and 113 high school teams. X League now consists of 61 teams spread over four divisions (X, X2, X3 and X4) and subdivided even further into conferences. The top division started its season in early September (see listings for details or www.xleague.com) and runs through the end of October before the playoffs and knockout tournament that climaxes in the C Bowl in December. Various games are broadcast on TV.
Last year, X league joined JTL (the Cooperative Organization of Japan Top Leagues), an organization grouping together second-tier sports such as rugby, ice hockey, basketball, futsal, etc. X League sees this as a stepping stone to reaching a broader audience. One of the projects they have developed is the “Value Improvement Project,” which focuses on increasing the number of players, and spectators coming out to see games. There are only 11 foreign players in the league, most with US college experience. Most X League players graduate to club teams from university. So these programs might be a way of increasing societal participation as a whole.
While X League’s official matches take place in the autumn, other, regional tournaments are held in the spring, split on an east-west basis. These tournaments are seen as giving new players a chance to develop.
Defending champions Obic Seagulls had a tough opener against new boys Nojima Sagamihara Rise, winning 24-19 in their first match, but found their form in their second game, annihilating Nihon Unisys 75-7. There have been a number of other high scores early in the season and Obic will have their work cut out defending their title. They may be the big boys in the league … but size doesn’t always count.