The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Although baseball is played in many countries, and soccer is nearly universal, the sport known as football in the US has largely remained a North American property. One exception is Japan, where the game enjoys a fair degree of success and boasts a fan base that, while not sizeable compared with that of pro baseball or soccer, is dedicated and passionate.

Based on traditional games such as soccer and rugby, American football was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The game gained popularity on US college campuses, with many innovations coming from university coaches such as Glenn “Pop” Warner and Knute Rockne, the legendary Notre Dame head coach.

Football in Japan can trace its roots back to the early 1930s, when several Americans helped form teams at Waseda, Meiji, and Rikkyo universities. Those who played a role include a missionary doing rebuilding work after the 1923 earthquake, military attachés from the United States Embassy, and a university trainer working in Tokyo and Yokohama. Although football came to a halt during World War II, it resumed shortly after. Today, more than 17,000 players—mostly university students—play the game across the country.


The highest level of football in Japan is the X League. This is where players from the top schools, including Kwansei Gakuin and Ritsumeikan universities, ply their trade after graduation.

The X League has three tiers among which teams are relegated and promoted based on their record. The 18 teams in the top tier are divided into three six-team divisions: East, Central, and West. To maintain competitiveness, the teams are each allowed a maximum of four non-Japanese players.

The season is split into two halves, the first of which takes place in the spring with a five-game slate. In the fall, each team plays a second round of five games. The top three teams from each division then advance to the next stage where they are placed into two new groups with three divisions each. The top three teams from the East, Central, and West form the Super 9, while the bottom three form the Battle 9. The teams then each play two games. From the Super 9, four teams advance to the semifinals, with the top two winners meeting up in the Japan X Bowl at the Tokyo Dome in December.

Unlike in the US, where the National Football League (NFL) season ends when the Super Bowl champion is crowned, the winners of the Japan X Bowl aren’t quite finished. They must play one more opponent: the winner of the national university tournament, the Rice Bowl. This much-anticipated game takes place in early January at Tokyo Dome. Pitting pro players against university players isn’t as lopsided as one might think. In the 2016 contest, the Panasonic Impulse beat the Ritsumeikan University Panthers—albeit by a scant three points.

The X League is also where American Kevin Jackson continued his career after wrapping up his college playing days at the University of Hawaii. Jackson came to Japan more than a decade ago and quickly found success, helping the Obic Seagulls win the X League championship in 2005 and picking up championship game most-valuable player (MVP) honors in the process.

Jackson’s success was not limited to his first year in Japan; he’s been named an all-league player 10 times since. He also picked up a second X Bowl MVP prize and a league MVP title.

Jackson’s path to Japan can be traced to his time at the University of Hawaii, where he came into contact with many Japanese and studied the language. Additionally, while he was in school, he met a Japanese coach who was interning with Jackson’s head coach. They became good friends. “It was a good opportunity to practice Japanese while running football plays.”

Although Jackson received a free-agent contract from the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, he was not part of their plans for the regular season. As a result, he was left to continue training and consider his options.

The coach who interned at the University of Hawaii eventually became the offensive coordinator for Obic. He had stayed in contact with Jackson and invited him to play in Japan. Jackson has been a member of the Seagulls ever since, contributing to the 2005 championship and helping the Seagulls win four straight titles from 2010 to 2013.

When comparing football in the US and Japan, the size of the players is easily the most noticeable difference. NFL teams boast defensive lineman in the 195-centimeter (6’5″) and 145-kilogram (320 lb) range, compared with the 180-centimeter (5’11”) and 80-kilogram (175 lb) defensive players in Japan.

Another difference can be seen in the way the game is played. Daniel Lynds, the offensive coordinator for Obic and a coach with nearly 20 years’ experience in Japan and the US, said: “I feel the biggest difference is that American players and Japanese players view the game differently. For American players, football is a competitive sport. They grew up listening to a coach, learning technique and fundamentals from that coach, and then athletically competing to win their individual matchups. In contrast, most Japanese players don’t learn technique and fundamentals from coaches. Rather, they develop their own style of play and look to defeat their opponent using their own personal style.”

He continued to explain differences in mindset. “For the Japanese player, football is more of a cerebral sport than a competitive sport. I don’t think it’s bad that the Japanese are cerebral and that the Americans are competitive. To be a truly great player, you have to blend both the cerebral and competitive to be the best player that you can be. Americans can learn from the Japanese style and the Japanese can learn from the American style.”

Looking back on his time in Japan, Jackson feels the players have been improving and will continue to do so. “As far as the level of play, the foreign talent that teams have been bringing in is better and they are bringing up the level of their Japanese peers.”

He sees improvement in the overall league as well. “The Japanese have done a good job of staying current with a lot of the trends in football. A lot of the types of offenses and strategies that teams are running now are based on what NFL and college teams in the States are doing. The teams here are doing a good job of mirroring the successful teams in the US,” he explained.

Japan lost 59–12 to the US in the 2015 IFAF World Championship final

Japan lost 59–12 to the US in the 2015 IFAF World Championship final

In the future, Jackson would like to expand on his work with youth football. “I’m doing some work outside of the team with high schools and universities here, trying to expose younger Japanese players to football stateside. We took a group of high school kids to Arizona last year, visiting the [NFL] Cardinals and Arizona State University to hopefully encourage the kids to consider a move to the US to play at the high school or university level.”

Jackson is not alone in wanting players to have overseas exposure. Indeed, for the X League to gain widespread popularity at home, a Japanese player needs to make it to the top level in the world: the NFL.

Mutsumi Takahashi, a versatile player who has spent time on several X League teams as well as the Arena Football League in the US, wants to see people in Japan understand the game better.

“For that to happen, there need to be Japanese playing at the highest level. Young people need more opportunities to play the game. Although it will be difficult, getting a player—most likely a wide receiver, the position tasked with catching passes—to a top university and eventually the NFL, is possible,” Takahashi said.

Lynds agrees, saying: “There’s no doubt a Japanese player will eventually make an NFL team. It’s just a matter of time. The position with the best chance is probably wide receiver. A few Japanese receivers have been invited to NFL camps, but unfortunately none have made the final roster. Like any player, they just need to be given the chance.”

“The dream, besides having football be a success here, is someday seeing a Japanese player at the top level,” Jackson said.

Takahashi understands that football is bred into Americans and that fandom forms at a young age. “If Japanese are able to understand the game better, and a Japanese player makes the NFL, the cultural bond between Japan and the US could be strengthened.”

James Souilliere has been living, writing, and editing in Japan for 25 years. He currently works in the editorial department at The Japan Times.
Football in Japan can trace its roots back to the early 1930s