On Monday, I got out to the Rice Bowl - the final match in Japan's American Football season. It's a pretty odd setup, pitting the champions of the professional, company-sponsored X-League (Japanese) against the collegiate champions. This year, the Obic Seagulls won the X-Bowl, and with it the right to face off against the Ritsumeikan University Panthers. Despite this weird setup, the Rice Bowl is referred to as the Japanese national championship in American Football.
The history of American football (Japanese) in Japan is surprisingly long, going back to the 1936 founding of three university teams. The game is now amazingly vital at the university level here, with particular strength at the most elite universities, including Tokyo, Meiji, and Waseda Universities. I can't really speak for the country as a whole, but Tokyo has quite a few sports bars that broadcast NFL games (though on delay), and various clubs and groups, including alums of American Universities, that get together to watch games. Supposedly, the Superbowl is broadcast live, which I'm looking forward to.
It seems the footing of the pro league has changed a bit in recent years. This article from 2001 describes the X League as basically a bunch of weekend warriors, but by 2005 it seems they had transitioned to, at least for some players, genuine pro status. This means there has been some importing of foreign talent, including Obic's DL Kevin Jackson. But I was honestly a bit surprised - there were only three gaikokujin on Obic team, two from Hawaii University and one from Harvard, which despite this year's performance isn't exactly known as an exporter of football talent. Moreover, the coaching staff was entirely Japanese.
Historically, there has been a pretty decent balance in these games, with the college and corporate champs trading wins from year to year. But this slowly growing professionalization may be why this year's Rice Bowl seemed so lopsided - it ended in a shutout of the college team. The quality of play was frankly low on Ritsumeikan's side of the ball, with a lot of throwaway passes and several dramatic, punishing turnovers. Weirdly, though, the college's linemen generally outweighed the pros.
But of course, the onfield action is only part of the attraction, and I was blown away by the comprehensive adoption of American trappings and rituals. There were cheerleaders (including a huge, coed college squad and a small, sexed-up pro group), a halftime show, pro-quality referees and announcing. As is so frequently the case with cultural imports in Japan, the calls were in Japanese-English, from ofusaido to horudingu.
Most important of all, there was a really respectable crowd. The Tokyo Dome isn't the world's biggest stadium, but it was about 2/3 full, and the atmosphere was great. I sat on the college side, but they were just about evenly packed.
At the end of the game, their was a formal presentation of two awards - one to the victors, and one to an MVP. The kimono-clad presenter was the most obviously Japanese touch to the whole thing.
From what I've read, the quality of play is much shabbier at the lower levels of the pro league, but I had a great time at the Rice Bowl. The most awkward thing about it is what we call the sport itself - "American Football" is of course necessary internationally (though it does seem strange in Japan, the only other country that calls footie "soccer"), but there's got to be something cooler. I would even go for "American Rules Football" - I've always envied the Australians their double meaning.