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Original Issue


The teams—Notre Dame and Miami—were imported and the fans were wet and bewildered, but if past form holds, they'll soon be chanting "We're No. 1"

Question: What is a nice place like Japan doing in a game like American football?

Answer: We were wondering about that ourself. We were tapping our feet to the Toyota commercial on our Sony Trinitron, waiting for the rain to stop so we could take a spin on our new Kawasaki, when we got to wondering about that.

We are sitting in Tokyo Olympic Memorial Stadium, watching the only bowl game in the history of American intercollegiate football to be named after an automobile. The event is called the Mirage Bowl, but it is actually a regular-season game between Notre Dame and the University of Miami. The game was originally scheduled for Miami, but the Japanese persuaded the participants to move it 9,000 miles for esthetic reasons—the beauty of a $200,000 guarantee and all expenses paid.

The Mirage is a four-cylinder, four-speed, 37-mpg (city) vehicle manufactured by the Mitsubishi Motor Company, which used to make Zero fighter planes. Zeroes used to shoot down American fighter planes. The Mirage is one of the latest in a line of Japanese motor cars that have been shooting down Detroit.

A mirage is what we think we are seeing.

It is a typical Tokyo November afternoon: raw, drizzly, misty and surreal, like a Munch painting. Nevertheless, 60,000 Japanese and a scattering of Miamians and South Benders are in the stadium. The Japanese have been there since a couple of hours before kickoff, attached to their seats like woodscrews, happily risking pneumonia as they cheer and wave their pompons. Their enthusiasm belies the drift of the competition. Miami is getting clobbered, 40-15—which turned out to be the final score. Every few minutes a brassy, high-pitched fanfare of trumpets erupts from the bowels of the stadium, the musical facsimile of a nervous breakdown. The fanfares make our scalp crawl.

"Ganbate music," we are told by a young man on our left, an American. "Persistence music. They're telling the Miami team not to give up."

"They've chosen sides?" we ask.

"Not really. If Notre Dame were losing, they'd be advising Notre Dame to do the same thing. Not to give up. The trumpeters are from the universities of Keio and Waseda. They were hired for the job."

The young man identifies himself as Jeffrey, a schoolteacher living in Tokyo. He is friendly and warm, and is either growing a beard or has poor shaving habits. Some of Jeffrey's warmth comes from a flask he has packed in for the event. He is full of helpful information.

"We are amazed how well the Japanese take to football," we tell him. "How well they know the game."

"They don't know it at all," says Jeffrey. "They enjoy the pageantry and the cheerleaders showing their thighs and they like the excitement of seeing large men crash into one another. And, of course, they're terrific hosts. They would think it a loss of face if they didn't make the teams feel welcome. But they have no idea what's going on."

"Then why have they paid $25 a seat to sit out here on a miserable day and suffer a one-sided game?"

"Like me," says Jeffrey, "they probably got in free. The house is mostly paper. Also, if you will remember, Mitsubishi gave away a car in the first half."

We ask Jeffrey how he knows these things. He says he knows Mitsubishi, a powerful conglomerate with a lot of indebted associates in the business world to put the arm on. Mitsubishi and its corporate allies buy the tickets and pass them around, he says. "I got mine from the International Sacred Hearts School."

"That's very interesting," we say, "but how do you know they didn't happen to get 60,000 Japanese who know American football?"

"First," says Jeffrey, "you would have to assume that 60,000 Japanese who know English also know football. It ain't likely. Then you would have to remember what you've been hearing all afternoon—a public-address announcer who hasn't spoken a single word of Japanese. All the action has been reported in English."

We think about it, and listen for a while. Jeffrey is correct. There are no Japanese translations. The P.A. announcer speaks fluent English. He reports the scoring of no tatche downs or feerudo goals. No kwata backs have thrown any fowado passes. No shimpans (referees) have walked off any bassoku (penalties).

"Take my word for it," says Jeffrey, offering his flask. "They have no idea what's going on."

No, thank you, we say, but promise to meet him later, when, with some Japanese friends, we will "tour an area of Akasaka" that he "knows well." He says he once toured it alone and remembers being on the verge of passing out. He woke the next morning in his bed in his apartment. His wallet was in his pocket, untapped. His shoes were arranged neatly on the floor.

We ask our Japanese friend, Michi Jin-no, about these things. Michi works for Tele Planning International, Inc., the Tokyo-based promotional packager that thought up the Mirage Bowl and runs it—ever more ambitiously every year. Michi, now general manager of Tele Planning's New York office, was our interpreter and a principal in our after-hours philosophical forums at various caffeine dens near the Ginza. At the time he was also a communications major at Temple University in Philadelphia, a bright young man who grasped early the ways sports can be enhanced by business. And vice versa. He points out, as testimony, the tangible good the Japanese refinement of Ame-Rug (for "American rugby," formerly Gai-kyu, for "armored football") accomplished with the 1978 Mirage Bowl. Temple played in that one. Afterward, some of Michi's chums in the band purchased U.S. versions of the Mirage.

Michi doesn't know what percentage of the crowd actually paid its way in to see Notre Dame-Miami, but finds it of no consequence. As long as they are there, who gives a domo? He says the Japanese people are "getting into" American football. He says they "like the personal play—the personal running, the personal passing. Also the hitting on the line. It's like sumo wrestling." He says the Japanese were quite taken with Grambling when it came over for the first Mirage Bowl in 1977. "They love the Grambling band. They love when the band marches and plays at the same time." Also, they liked the Grambling offense, featuring Quarterback Doug Williams, he says. "It was very passing," he says.

He says the Japanese fans' excitement is a spontaneous thing. The general rule is that "every time the ball moves, they clap hands." Too, their rooting tendencies follow egalitarian lines. Even if there is a favored player or team, "once game starts, they split up—two pieces to cheer." He says it is true, however, that some of the finer points escape them. "They want to know, 'What is kickoff?' 'How many innings in a quarter?' 'Why you score seven points instead of one?' "

In its wisdom, Tele Planning has provided for this. Michi refers us to the thick, slick, bilingual Mirage Bowl program. It is an engineering marvel filled with eye-popping foldouts and full-color punch-out decals and selling for 1,500 yen ($6)—the grandest program we have ever seen. It includes more than 20 pages of rudimentary football instruction, covering everything from "face masks" to "four-down changes." For political clout, there are signed salutations from President Carter and then Prime Minister Ohira; for consumer inspiration, the words and music of the Mirage anthem: "It's a fantasy, playing in my mind...Mirage...Mirage." Tele Planning, says Michi, thinks of everything.

We tell Michi we think it's terrific that the Japanese have embraced yet another American institution, even though history warns us where that can lead. We say we're sure in this case it will lead to increased efficiency and productivity in the game, and better packaging. During the week, we have heard many thrilling stories of football's struggle to make it in an alien culture. We have been all ears.

For example, from the Miami-Notre Dame game's garrulous umpire and amateur Far East historian, Jim Lineberger of Los Angeles, we learn that Japan's first brush with American football occurred in 1934, in the form of an exhibition game. In 1935 a 38-man U.S. college "all-star" team paid a significant missionary visit. Stocked with Pacific Coast players, the all-stars played 10 games in 30 days, logging 10,000 miles. U.S. Olympians who protested the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games would have admired those players' political benightedness. An invitation from Fascist Italy was withdrawn at the last minute when Mussolini chose to invade Ethiopia instead. They were then turned down by Nazi Germany, which was preparing for the 1936 Olympics (and other things). Imperial Japan was their third choice.

After the war football in Japan grew in popularity, albeit much more modestly than, say, American baseball. Japanese hopes for a reasonable parity in the game were confounded by an unyielding physiological handicap—the overwhelming size differential between the races. U.S. college teams (Utah State, Wake Forest) have, in recent years, run up scores "scrimmaging" against Japanese all-star teams. In 1977, invaders from Brigham Young played two Japanese teams, winning by scores of 61-13 and 71-0.

The referee of the Miami-Notre Dame game, Bob Beveridge, a former Air Force sergeant married to a Japanese and living in Yokota, also refereed those games. He recalls an epidemic of holding violations on the part of the Japanese. His policy was to look the other way. "When you're 75 pounds lighter than the guy across the line from you, holding may be a right," says Beveridge.

A subsequent Japanese victory over a lightweight team from Cornell in 1976 restored some impetus to the movement. There have since been other healthy developments. According to the American Football Association of Japan, 139 universities, 92 high schools and 52 clubs now play the game more or less regularly. An all-Japanese college championship is held every year in Osaka, and two U.S. all-star teams come in January for the Japan Bowl.

Media attention has grown. Grade school quarterbacks now study the techniques of U.S. college teams on late-night television ("video strips") plus a veritable torrent of how-to books—meaning, in the lexicon of publicists, four or five—which have rolled off the Japanese presses, along with two football periodicals, American Football and Touchdown. Japanese football columnists have successfully adapted the trenchant editorial style of their American counterparts; e.g., the Asahi Evening News, weighing the chances of the Irish against Miami, viewed Notre Dame's "most tarnished record in ages...[as] a disaster of major proportions." (Notre Dame was 6-4 at the time.) A Miami victory, said the News, would write "a final and dismal chapter to the most woebegone [Notre Dame] football season in ages." The Daily Oklahoman would have been proud.

Nonetheless, a certain Eastern-stoic approach to financing the game has kept it from getting too big for its britches, Lineberger told us. Ame-Rug is still mostly a rags-to-rags story. With the exception of an elite few, Japanese teams play on dirt fields. They buy their own shoes and helmets. Some buy their own jerseys. There are no paid coaches and no scholarships. There are no "football stadiums," per se. Until the Miami-No-tre Dame game, the Mirage Bowl itself had been played at Korakuen Stadium, home of the Tokyo Giants baseball team.

As "the most stupendous of Tokyo's sports pageants" (by the estimate of one Japanese correspondent), the Mirage Bowl represents the opposite extreme—a model of blatant commercialism. Enthusiasm for the event, whether freely given or on rental, is carefully "Tele-Planned" and doesn't necessarily require unanimous acceptance.

Not much chance of that, anyway, it would seem. On the day of the game, with the most famous name in American football as a principal, the advance story was buried at the bottom of page 10 of the English-language Tokyo Times, under the headline NOTRE DAME TEAM PAYS VISIT TO KAMAKURA. The story dwelled not on the impending struggle but on the Irish team's trip to the seat of the Minamota shogunate government. Its exhilarating stop at a Buddhist temple. Its exciting visit to a Shinto shrine.

All of this, of course, didn't explain what we had been led to believe is the Mirage Bowl's manifest destiny—to show the world how to bring football to its ultimate fulfillment as a first-rate shill. To find that out, says Michi, we must go to the source of the vision, the father of the Mirage Bowl, the "Sol Hurok of Ame-Rug," Michi's boss, the amazing Atsushi (Bulldozer) Fujita, president of Tele Planning International, Inc. We had already met Mr. Fujita.

We are sitting in the lobby of the Miyako Hotel, awaiting an audience with Bulldozer. The Miami and Notre Dame teams, their bands and official parties are all quartered at the Miyako, a departure from big-time college-football logistics that is the rough equivalent of putting Leonard and Duran in a double bed the night before a fight.

Nevertheless, despite rubbing biceps in the elevators and vying for the better seats in the lobby, the teams are getting along fine. It is the rival bands that report tensions. For a week they have crossed instruments at downtown parades and ball-park concerts, tooting and banging their way competitively through Tele Planning's demanding schedule, attracting large crowds and (apparently for the first time) experiencing autograph hunters. They get more attention than the football teams. They love it. The teams don't love it.

The Miyako is not what you would call centrally located. It is 45 miles by bus from the airport, and better than $20 by cab from downtown Tokyo and the various McDonald's and Shakey's Pizza parlors that comprise the nutritive backbone of most downtown areas of the world today.

To some observers, this isolation seemed to have been carefully "Tele-Planned" to avoid any costly spending sprees by the collegiate entourages and, not incidentally, keep them under watchful eyes. After all, the way to see how quickly a U.S. dollar can sprout wings is to convert it into yen. Michi insists, however, that the Miyako was chosen simply because it could hold all the people from the two schools.

Nevertheless, the Miyako has taken certain precautions. Anything charged—phone calls, lunch, in-room massages—must be paid at the desk the same day or risk the charger a visit from the management. On display in each room is a small sign to remind occupants where they are. Verbatim, the sign reads: "In case of your [long-distance] call was not as Collect Call, please pay the charge to our Front Office Casher when finished your call, not await until your deperture. The Management, Miyako Hotel, Tokyo."

Dave Highmark, who was Miami's business manager, and Jim White, its director of sports promotion at the time, know about having audiences with Fujita. They have had their share. They are in the lobby, watching from a respectful distance as Fujita holds court in a step-down lounge area near the front door. Individual petitioners and gift recipients are being brought to him one and two at a time by his aides, who flutter around him like hummingbirds. He has been giving going-away presents (expensive Nikon cameras he brushes off" as "toys") to Miami and Notre Dame functionaries.

White and Highmark speak of Bulldozer Fujita in the awed terms one might apply to a Mike Todd or a P.T. Barnum. They tell of his uncanny organizational ability, his sharp eye for detail. To put this particular act together, they say, he first sent a six-man delegation to Miami just to watch the football team practice. A television crew filmed "A Day in the Life of Pat Walker," the star Miami receiver. Simultaneously, Fujita arranged for a Japanese television star, Sayuri Takashima, to do a five-part mini-series on football fundamentals. She did it at Notre Dame, with herself in the lead roles as, progressively, a kicker, a split end, a running back and a quarterback. In the last reel Miss Takashima was seen on Japanese screens scoring "the winning touchdown." It was considered a tour de force.

Fujita himself had twice gone to Miami, setting up headquarters at a Holiday Inn near the campus and directing his forces from there. "They followed him around like little ducks," says White. They made calls at 10 p.m., requesting meetings. The requests sounded suspiciously like demands. " 'Mr. Fujita would like to speak to Mr. Dan McNamara of the Orange Bowl. Arrange, please.' 'Mr. Fujita will have dinner tomorrow with [university] President [Henry King] Stanford. Arrange, please.' One day we had to arrange to stop practice so Mr. Fujita could pose for a picture in the middle of the team, 'informally' grouped."

If they said no to a request, says Highmark, Fujita ignored it. He told White and Highmark they must "exert more effort" to help in the promotion of the game, getting more Miami people to fly the special charters to Japan to help defray Tele Planning's burgeoning expenses. He told them they were "not working hard enough."

"He is an honorable man, I think, but crafty," says Highmark. "And very persistent." When Fujita went back to Tokyo after the last visit, he kept the pressure on by sending two or three telegrams a day, "each one marked urgent." White says he would have been offended by this if they hadn't come to respect Fujita's motives. "Of course," he says, "Mr. Fujita's motives have nothing to do with a love for football."

When Fujita's entourage returned to the States to cover golf's U.S. Open at Toledo, Fujita summoned the band directors and business managers from the two schools for a meeting. "First," says High-mark, "he handed out gifts—portable tape decks. Very nice. Once that was out of the way, he got to the point. He told us exactly the kind of music he expected the bands to play. In detail. Then he said he was taking us to dinner at a fancy Japanese steak house in Toledo.

"When we got there, the restaurant was closed. Mr. Fujita huddled with his aides. He got the number off the door and called the owner, speaking to him in Japanese. He told the owner he wanted him to come right down and open up, just for his dinner party. Naturally, the owner did exactly that."

"Naturally," we say.

We are given our time with Fujita. As fathers of extraordinary events go, he isn't an especially imposing figure. He tells us he is only 160 centimeters tall (about 5'2") and 60 kilos large (132 pounds). But at 47 he has a strong, handsome face with somewhat ominous eyes and a prominent jaw he apparently has never been afraid to stick out.

A onetime amateur boxer who never lost a fight ("I learned only to go forward, never backward"), Fujita, in less than five years, has made Tele Planning an international sports force to be reckoned with. He retraces for us this remarkable climb, Michi interpreting: as a "brat" growing up by the Inland Sea, the ninth child of a Niihama sake brewer, he learned hard "philosophical" truths. At six he was sent alone into the mountains to spend the night, "for the spirit, for the mind." He says there are virtues to be found in such an experience, a "cooperation between the mind and the body."

Because the U.S. military allowed no martial arts after World War II, and because he was too small for basketball, baseball or soccer, Fujita turned to boxing, in which he could compete with boys his own size. His father built a gym behind the family liquor store and Fujita used kendo gloves (little more than padded golf gloves) while practicing the manly art. "From boxing," he says, "I learned two things: one, you must often do without help. Two, sooner or later in life everyone gets hit." At Waseda University, competing as a junior flyweight, he won "more than 20" fights, but gave it up after that because "it is low-class entertainment—and there is not enough money."

After college, Fujita worked in sales and eventually as sales manager at a Tokyo television station. In 1976 he and his older brother Kiyoshi founded Tele Planning. He had seen the future: the value of hitching a wagon to the international sports comet, the potential in televising games and contests via satellite. "The future of Japanese television," he says, "is not Mork and Mindy, but sports and news—live events. We are 10 years behind the U.S. in television. When we catch up, I want to be ahead."

His first venture was the purchase of the rights to televise the first Ali-Patterson fight, for which he paid a paltry $2,000. To cover that (and more), he rounded up four Japanese sponsors. He made a lot of money. Other fights followed, then major golf tournaments, including the Masters and U.S. Open. His corporation mushroomed and was subdivided into a conglomerate that last year paid taxes on a $50 million gross. He says the special ingredient was the Japanese public's "fascination" with live telecasts—no matter the event, even if it didn't understand them. This, naturally, led him to American football.

Fujita saw his first football game on television "10 or 12 years ago." He didn't understand it. "I thought touchdown was an aeronautical term," he says. Mystified by its rules and disdainful of its "crazy specialization" (the numbing reality of doing the same thing over and over again, as, say, a right guard does), he nevertheless could appreciate its "noble stubbornness."

Vacationing in California a few years later, Fujita one day found himself between a choice of "drinking with my cronies," and thereby risking the disfavor of his wife, or accompanying her to Disneyland. He compromised and took her to a Rose Bowl game. There Fujita discovered football's "grandeur." He saw "an explosion of color" and a "dazzling coordination." He saw "the fantastic brute force." He saw a game that made a "very hard-hitting, very powerful" spectacle. In short, a terrific way to make a buck. When it took him 2½ hours to find his car afterward, he was hooked.

Soon enough he presented his concept to Mitsubishi: the complete packaging of a football game and all that he perceived should go with it, including parades and concerts and television specials. This in return for sponsorship. Mitsubishi had a new automobile to hawk. An agreement was quickly reached. Fujita set about "promoting hell out of the [car's] name." All summer he had people running around Japan with MIRAGE BOWL T shirts. "People asked, 'What's the Mirage Bowl?' " Fujita says, "We gave them the answer before the question." The first Mirage Bowl was played six months before the first Mirages rolled off the assembly line. "When they did, 80% of those who bought already knew the name." That, he says proudly, is "product awareness."

As Fujita goes on, Michi scribbles frantically on a note pad. He interrupts when the words outspeed his translation.

We become aware that others are still waiting for Fujita. A lovely, unusually tall Japanese woman wearing a picture hat and a red dress is poised nearby. We've already exceeded our allotted time. We begin saying our goodbys and get up to leave. Fujita tells us to sit down, there is more.

He says in the last four years he has made 23 trips to the U.S. to study football. On one of his first trips he learned of Grambling and its wonderful marching band. "I said, 'If you have such good band, do you also have a football team?' " Grambling's band marched in the first Mirage Bowl in 1977, and its team defeated Temple 35-32. Somebody told Fujita Grambling was "the black Notre Dame." He didn't know what that meant, but he made it his business to find out.

The following year he brought Temple back to play (and defeat) Boston College. This time he added the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders to the program. Clicking Nikons could be heard all the way to Hakone. Bulldozer was in high gear. He decided it was time to get the "white" Notre Dame.

"Japanese people are like American people," he tells us. (He is still ignoring the woman in red; we aren't doing as well.) "Japanese people love superstars. Nicklaus, Namath. Regardless of the cost, if you can get the best, it is good business."

Notre Dame said no. It said it wasn't interested in playing a "home" game in Japan. Rumor of the refusal reached the desk of Joe Doyle of the South Bend Tribune. Joe gets around. He knew a free trip to Japan when he saw one, and he saw this one flying out the window.