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Kicking Off: An Introduction to Japan’s American Football League

In need of a football fix? The X League has imported the American sport and is hitting the gridiron at a stadium near you.

By 5 min read

Fans of American football (referred to simply as “football” in the rest of this article) can be easily spotted in Japan: they’re the ones dragging into work on Monday mornings with panda-like black circles around their eyes, having spent the night streaming live games in North America when they should’ve been sleeping.

However, there is another option. Football does exist in Japan, and although it’s yet to become truly mainstream, it’s a quality product that can scratch the itch of fans of the North American game.

What’s the X League?

Photo:
Tokyo Gas Creators quarterback Jerod Evans throws a pass against the Fujitsu Frontiers on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki in an X League regular-season game.

The X League (Japanese) is Japan’s top football organization. It’s made up of 55 teams divided into tiers, with promotion and relegation between them based on team performance. The top tier, called X1 Super, has eight teams that stretch geographically from the Kanto to Kansai regions.

X League players are all amateurs. Teams may include up to four import players from overseas, with no more than two allowed on the field at a time. Import players are not paid by the team but are often given jobs with a sponsor company, for which they receive a salary.

As of 2021, the most expensive ticket costs just ¥2,000.

The season comes in two parts. First, a spring tournament runs from April to June, which serves as a warmup for the all-important fall season (August to January). The champion of the fall season is determined at the Rice Bowl game, held at Tokyo Dome on Jan. 3 each year.

There are two types of teams in the league: club teams and company teams. Company teams are owned by a corporation whose employees make up the team’s roster and coaching staff. Club teams hold open tryouts and can be joined by anyone. In the past, there was a roughly 50/50 split between club and company teams, but company teams have gradually disappeared over the years. Today only two exist in the league’s top tier: the Fujitsu Frontiers (Japanese), based in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa and the Panasonic Impulse (Japanese), from Kadoma City in Osaka.

How to catch a game

Photo:
Fujitsu Frontiers running back Trashaun Nixon carries the ball down the sideline during their season-opener against the Nojima Sagamihara Rise on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021 at Fujitsu Stadium in Kawasaki.

For those who prefer to watch from home, Eleven Sports provides a streaming service called X League TV (Japanese), allowing subscribers to watch X League games on their computer or personal device—streamed live or on-demand.

The site offers both monthly and season-long subscription plans and has a lower rate for the first month for new members. The league’s website has an English guide to help you sign up for a subscription.

If you would rather watch in-person, tickets are available through the X League’s website (Japanese), and are incredibly affordable. As of 2021, the most expensive ticket costs just ¥2,000, with discounts for children. In addition, tickets bought in advance are cheaper than those purchased on game day.

An estimated 5,000 high school students play, while roughly 10,000 players participate at the university level.

The X League’s website also has a useful list of the league’s stadiums (Japanese), although many games are held at central locations in Kanagawa (Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki), Osaka (Expo Flash Field), and Hyogo (Oji Stadium).

You can find a local team to support among the following nine that make up the X1 Super league (as of this writing):

  • Nojima Sagamihara Rise (Sagamihara, Kanagawa)
  • Fujitsu Frontiers (Kawasaki, Kanagawa)
  • Obic Seagulls (Narashino, Chiba)
  • IBM Big Blue (Chiba City, Chiba)
  • Panasonic Impulse (Kadoma, Osaka)
  • Elecom Kobe Finies (Kobe, Hyogo)
  • Tokyo Gas Creators (Koto, Tokyo)
  • All Mitsubishi Lions (Hachioji, Tokyo)

Football’s history in Japan

Photo:
Obic Seagulls players hold the championship trophy after beating the Kwansei Gakuin University 35‐18 for their first Rice Bowl crown in seven years on Jan. 3, 2021 at Tokyo Dome.

Football was introduced to Japan by Dr. Paul Rusch, an American missionary who first arrived in the country in 1925. Rusch’s name remains in the game today, as the Paul Rusch Trophy (Japanese) is awarded annually to the most valuable player of the Rice Bowl.

The sport’s popularity picked up in the 1950s when club and company teams started forming. Those teams organized into a formal league in 1971, which evolved into the modern-day X League in 1996.

Football in Japan is also popular as a school sport. An estimated 5,000 high school students play, while roughly 10,000 players participate at the university level. The Kansai and Kanto regions, in particular, are hotbeds of school football.

College football uniquely intermingled with the adult league for many years. From 1984 to 2021, the university champion and the X League champion (or its precursor) faced off in the Rice Bowl.

With scores becoming increasingly lopsided…the two different levels would no longer face each other.

In the early days, the college teams dominated, winning seven of the first eight titles—attributed to the fact that college teams practiced every day, while the adult teams were made up of company employees who could only practice on weekends.

However, the tide shifted. The difference in physical ability between adults and students became more pronounced, and X League teams eventually surpassed the college teams.

The adults won every year from 2010 to 2021, with scores becoming increasingly lopsided. For physical safety, the two different levels would no longer face each other from the 2021-22 season. Instead, the Rice Bowl became the X League championship game, while university teams would crown their champion in the Koshien Bowl (Japanese).

The National Football League, the sport’s top league globally, has also made its mark in Japan. Football had garnered enough attention in Japan to be included in the rotation of the American Bowl, a series of NFL preseason games played in various countries to bring the league to its international fans. Japan hosted the game 13 times between 1989 and 2005.

The extra point

One joy of living in Japan is discovering its many niche communities and finding people passionate about what they do. The football community here is no exception. At all levels of the sport, coaches and players deeply care for the game and do their best to nurture and develop it.

It’s well worth looking into.

Have you ever caught an X League game? Let us know about your experience in the comments section below.

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