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Original Issue

The Rising Sun of Football in Japan

An American teacher (to his own surprise) brought the honorable T formation to some collegians in Tokyo

"The Japanese have a way with American games that is all too scrutable: they are very good at them. They took over baseball as though it were a colony and they go at American-style football with a zeal that might be considered excessive at Notre Dame. Football is played at 19 Japanese colleges. The players may lack the beef of U.S. collegians but they make up for it in style and—it is the only word—ceremony.

An important part of the missionary work for football in Japan was done by an American teacher named Donald T. Oakes. It still surprises him, for that was not the kind of missionary he set out to be. He is now the principal of a private school in Lenox, Mass. In 1949, shortly after graduation from the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass., he went to Japan. Within a few months he found himself the most celebrated football coach in the country.

In some three years his teams at St. Paul's University in Tokyo won 34 games, lost three and tied one. Oakes was delighted and baffled. He was no ace: during his own football career at Dartmouth he played in only one spring game, as a dropkicker, of all things, and never even got a letter. The newly graduated Mr. Oakes had signed on for a teaching tour at St. Paul's, which was founded by the American Episcopal Church early this century, although it is now independent. He was supposed to teach American history and be assistant baseball coach. He grew up in Teaneck, N.J. and had once played semipro baseball in neighboring Tenafly.

But the school had no need for a baseball coach. Oakes recalls: "They had a staff of Japanese coaches who knew more about the sport than I ever would. So I withdrew from baseball with their very polite acceptance, and prepared to devote myself entirely to teaching."

One day, a month after he arrived, a group of about 15 students knocked on his door. Two boys, Niseis from America's Far West who had been stranded by the war while visiting in Japan and who spoke fluent English, informed Oakes that this was the St. Paul's football team and that they would be most honored if he would be their coach.

"But I don't know anything about football," Oakes protested. "I just know how to dropkick a little."

"Oh that's all right," they told him. "No matter how little football you know, you know more about it than we do."

American football had been started in Japan on the campus of St. Paul's in the early '30s by a teacher named Paul Rusch, who is reputed to be one of the models for the title character of the bestseller, The Ugly American. (The Ugly American is really quite a nice fellow in the book, a sort of good example for Yanks abroad.) The game caught on, and before long several colleges had teams. St. Paul's—its Japanese name is Rikkyo University, which translates as "The University of Upright Education"—was in a league called the Roku-Daigaku, a rough equivalent of our Ivy League.

With World War II all things that smacked of America were suppressed, except baseball, which was too popular. But as soon as the war was over, the alumni of the various universities wanted football again. The St. Paul's team, aided by its alumni, cleared and leveled a field with picks and shovels. They filled in bomb holes and cleared rubble. Their equipment was prewar stuff that had been hidden away in closets. The old leather helmets were so soft you could push your fingers into them. No one had any hip pads, and only three members of the squad had football shoes; the rest played in sneakers.

Oakes figured that anyone who wanted to play football that much deserved what little help he could give them. He wrote to a friend in the States to send him some books on how to be a football coach and plunged ahead. For the two games remaining in the season he let the team continue with the formations it had been using, which were as antiquated as the equipment.

"The games that year," Oakes said recently, "were played at Shiba Park—which means "Grass Park"—on which there was not a blade of grass, only clay and gravel. My first bit of coaching advice, at half time, was when I observed they were tackling too high. The captain of the team said, 'Coach, what you don't understand is that if we tackle high we fall on the runner; if we tackle low he falls on us.' "

The only innovation of that first season was a fake quick-kick—a fairly elementary ploy. But with it St. Paul's nosed out Meiji University by one point. When Oakes won his second game with hitherto hapless St. Paul's, he was considered the greatest coach in Japanese football, or a reasonable facsimile. As a result, he was asked to coach the Eastern All-Stars. The all-star games, East against West (Japan is essentially an east-west country rather than north-south), featured the best players of the two Japanese college football leagues. They were played in Meiji Park during the New Year's holidays and were called Rice Bowl games.

Magic by association

Oakes has no illusions about his rapid rise to glory. "They chose me to coach an all-star team because I was the only American coaching in the sport. They felt that because the Americans had won the war they couldn't lose in anything. This thought was very quickly dispelled in the first Rice Bowl game I coached. We were clobbered about four touchdowns to one. The glow was rubbed off. But it was good for my team, because they now realized they weren't going to win just because I set foot on the field."

During the first season the games drew about 50 people, and some of them were ringers. In Japanese universities they have what is known as the cheering party. A sizable portion of the student body goes out for this, and elects its own head, who assigns members to all college events, from athletics to debating and dramatics. The status of any activity is indicated by the number of the cheering party assigned. The ultimate is if you get the band. During that first year Oakes's footballers got about five members of the cheering party and a couple of trumpets, a practical brush-off.

At the conclusion of the game the team would stand in a row in front of its own section of the stands. The Alma Mater was sung and if the team, won, the players stood proudly, helmets in hand. If they lost, they hung their heads in ceremonious abasement.

At the end of the season the team traditionally had two parties, one a tea party, the other a drinking party. The tea party was ultragenteel. Everybody made complimentary speeches. The captain gave his accounting of the season, graciously according the coach full credit if it were a winning season and taking the blame himself if it were not. But the drinking party was something else again, somewhat like an American office Christmas party on a samurai scale.

The team did not drink during the season. They were under rigid discipline, not only physical, but in relationships. Japanese have what Americans would consider an exaggerated respect for authority. All Japan was set up on a seniority basis. When a squad came out to its first practice, the seniors chose their positions, then the juniors and so on. A sophomore or freshman could be great, but he would not get a starting position unless there was something left over.

Oakes recalls that once during a game an official waved a first down for the opposing team. The coach asked his captain to request a measurement, a thing unheard of in Japanese football; the officials themselves called for any measurements that were to be made. When the measurement was made, it turned out the ball was a foot short of the first down. So the official moved the ball a foot ahead and signaled a first down anyway. Authority had to be upheld.

But the drinking party was the safety valve. Japanese custom has it that when a person is drunk he is not accountable, and on this one night of the year anybody could tell off anybody else, and usually did, from the exalted coach and captain on down to the guy who held the starting position that you substituted at.

"My theory," Oakes said, "is that in Japan you find the reductio ad absurdum of American life. All the things we do and never admit, they do and have it organized. An example would be this drinking bit. We would say, 'Charlie didn't know what he was saying at the party.' In Japan it is planned that way.

"The colleges recruit athletes openly and systematically. They have tryouts before a person takes his entrance examination. The team captain then gives a list of the examination numbers in which he is interested to the director of athletics. Once admitted, the boy belongs to the football team, or whatever team recruited him. Then they start trading between the teams.

"One boy, who was tall and thin, had been drafted by the volleyball team, but once they got him they felt he wouldn't be quick enough. So they offered me an even trade. I took him, and he became an All-Japan tackle and captain of the team in his senior year.

"Once, while scouting a high school touch football team, I saw one of the fattest Japanese boys I'd ever seen. He stood about 5 feet 6 and weighed more than 200 pounds. He was built like a sumo wrestler. In touch football they made a fool of him, so I passed him up as a recruit. But when I called the first practice next season who shows up but this fat boy. The sumo team came over and brought two perfect physical specimens, each about 175 pounds. They offered them for our new fat member. They talked it over with our captain and the trade was set. But the boy came to me with tears rolling down his cheeks. He said that all his life people had been trying to make a sumo wrestler out of him, but he didn't want to be a sumo wrestler—he wanted to play football. He was so wound up about all this that I canceled the deal. That year we went into a five-four defense. I made this boy middle guard and played him only on defense. In two years I never saw this boy on the ground. He'd stand up in a sumo stance—I never saw his feet move—and he'd just bounce people off, reach out and grab the ballcarrier. I never saw a grass stain on his uniform."

Eligibility rules in Japanese universities are strange by American standards. In Oakes's time freshmen could play—and so could alumni. Kyoto University found it difficult to field a team, so by special dispensation this team could use alumni. Also, Japanese universities are composed of various colleges, such as the College of Economics, the College of Literature and so on. When a student finishes four years at one college he can keep right on in another if he chooses, and continue to play football. Oakes recalls one distinguished-looking gentleman in his 40s who was still playing for Hosei University. He was wealthy and just kept on taking courses, and playing football. He was the elder statesman of the first Eastern All-Star team Oakes coached.

Oakes was slightly disconcerted when at the first practice this man, a halfback, rode up to the field in a chauffeur-driven car. In the locker room the chauffeur helped him undress and suit up. When he took a shower the chauffeur would be there with a towel. The chauffeur did everything but run out and pick him up when he got knocked down.

During the long winter after his Rice Bowl fiasco, Oakes studiously applied himself to the books his Stateside friend had sent him on football. He was particularly taken with one by Frank Leahy on the Notre Dame T. Up to this time St. Paul's had been using an A formation and a single wing. But the T, Oakes felt, was ideal for his Japanese, with their light weight—they averaged about 145 pounds. The formations they had been using required strength. A block had to be held while the ballcarrier ran through a hole. But the T was predicated on quick reflexes, so the runner could get to the hole faster.

"Japanese are not fast," Oakes remarked, "they're quick. They have short legs and get off to incredibly quick starts, but in the long run their speed isn't maintained. The T suited our personnel. So I introduced the T formation as outlined in Leahy's book."

The team won a spring game, but the regular season that fall of 1950 was a mediocre one. They won two, lost two and tied one.

"By this time," said Oakes, "the bloom was certainly off the rose." He was not asked to coach the Eastern All-Stars. And yet, the American-style training was paying off. After that season none of his teams lost another game. The following fall St. Paul's won all its games and the national championship. Oakes was reinstated as coach of the Eastern All-Stars and won the Rice Bowl championship, and he did the same thing the following year.

By this time the football team's audience had grown from that original brave band of 50 to crowds of 20,000 and upward. They got a huge hunk of the cheering party, plus that consummate glory, the band. In fact, this resurgence of American football had reached such proportions that it came to the attention of U.S. Occupation authorities, in the person of one Al Dearing, a major in the psychological warfare division but in civilian life a New York public-relations man.

In the spring, the world over, a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love and/or riot. In America, it is panty raids. In Japan a good anti-American riot always makes everybody feel better. Dearing, thinking every minute, saw a way to head off this traditional spring revelry.

"Dearing," Oakes said, "had a vision of a big Japanese-American football game, to be played in Kyoto. He figured it would be a great demonstration of good feeling. It would show that Japanese and Americans could knock heads together and then throw their arms around each other and walk off the field."

Dearing had in mind an all-Japanese team against a gaggle of American college stars who were playing in Japan on U.S. Army teams. The occasion was to be called the First Annual Kyoto Bowl Game—although it turned out to be the only one.

An artist in his field, Dearing conned the mayor of Kyoto into sponsoring the game and Oakes into coaching the Japanese team. It took a little doing to get Oakes down to Kyoto, all expenses paid, but the armed forces came to the rescue. Oakes had done a hitch in the Navy during the war, and he was taken back on active duty as an ensign and assigned to Kyoto. But he made a condition. "We won't play against American college players," he told Dearing. "The weight difference is too great." His idea was to play an all-star team from the occupation forces high schools in Japan. O.K., said Dearing. Oakes organized his team, and they entrained for Kyoto. A band met them at the station. There were reporters, radio interviews, the mayor gave them the key to the city. Dearing had posters put up all over. He had arranged for hot dogs to add an authentic American touch. Bands and marching formations were waiting in the wings.

But Dearing had neglected to do one thing. He had forgotten to clear all this with the superintendent of the American high schools in Japan. When that gentleman learned what the American school coaches had agreed to, he vetoed the whole show.

"There we were in Kyoto," Oakes said, "with no team to play."

"We'll have to get an Army team," Dearing said desperately. He took Oakes to the colonel in command of the Kyoto area. The colonel was unhappy, but this thing was bigger than all of them. "O.K.," the colonel said reluctantly, "I'll get you an Army team."

"Agreed," Oakes said, "but nobody over 190 pounds." (The average weight of Japanese college players is 160 pounds.)

Four days before the game, he was given the roster of the opposing team. He flipped. It seemed as if everybody on the list weighed 190. He called his team together in the locker room and made a speech. The circumstances of the game had changed, he told them. They had in effect been brought down to Kyoto under false pretenses; they were not going to play a high school team, but full-grown Americans.

"I think now is the time," Oakes told them, "for anyone who does not want to participate to withdraw. This would not be an act of cowardice. You will be up against much bigger people, and you stand a risk of injury. But we have only four days to get ready and I need to know who's with me."

There was a silence that seemed to Oakes to last two minutes. Then from the back row, the smallest man on the squad, a quarterback named Nomura, shouted, "Banzai!" The entire team took up the shout, and the banzais shivered the rafters. Nobody walked out.

The game went on as scheduled. People came in buses from all over western Japan. The stadium was filled to capacity. The teams bowed to each other. The American national anthem was played. The Japanese national anthem was played. It even snowed—the final American touch.

Oakes's team played as though the glory of the New Japan rested on its shoulders. With three minutes to go, the American team led, but only by two points, 14-12. Oakes's star halfback, a boy named Nakazawa, had played the whole game. He got hit hard by a pair of big American linemen and the quarterback sent him out of the game, punchy. He staggered to the bench, in a daze. Oakes was preoccupied with the game, but after a moment he turned to Nakazawa. He started to say, "Nakazawa, doo desu ka?" which means, "How are you?" All he got out of his mouth was, "Nakazawa...." The boy thought he was getting the nod. He grabbed up his helmet and ran out onto the field before anyone could stop him, and his replacement came out.

According to plan, the quarterback, Nomura, had been sending the ballcarriers into the middle of the line throughout the game, since the Japanese were not big enough to hold the type of block necessary for end runs against such a heavy opponent. Nomura had a sudden inspiration. He faked a back into the center of the line and pitched out to the groggy Nakazawa. It caught the Americans completely napping. On animal instinct, Nakazawa went around end and scored from the 20-yard line. The game ended a minute later with what seemed a miraculous Japanese victory, 18-14. The crowd sat stunned, and the sportswriters had to rewrite their stories.

The banquet that night was an orgy of Japanese-American friendship, but the occasion Oakes will never forget is a surprise party that was thrown for him when he finished his teaching stint the following summer and was preparing to return to the States. He was lured to a hotel dining room, and found it filled with every boy he had coached during his three and a half seasons. Not one was missing. One had flown up from Okinawa, and two came down from Hokkaido, the northern island.

At the party the little quarterback, Nomura, said to Oakes: "I have been thinking why we have been successful. The other teams used roughly the same plays. They had good coaches and good players. I think we won because we had different relationships than the others. We learned that it is not a crime to question authority if we think it is wrong. We came around to thinking that the best man for each position should play, even if he does not have the seniority. We learned that it is not a thing of weakness to withdraw if we are injured, that it is for the good of the team."

And he shook Oakes's hands, tears in his eyes. "I hope," he said, "that these things carry over into our lives."