Late in the summer of 1942, Nobuo Fujita, a pilot in the Japanese Imperial Navy, was strapped into a seaplane and catapulted from the deck of a submarine that had surfaced off the Oregon coast. Hoping to spark a conflagration, Fujita circled over the forested mountains and dropped a couple of incendiary bombs. But the flames sputtered out, and Fujita returned to the sub, the only Japanese combatant to reach mainland America in World War II.
Embarking on its own aerial adventure in Oregon last Thursday, Kwansei Gakuin University became the first Japanese college football team to play on U.S. soil. Perhaps because the K.G. Fighters came in considerably greater strength than Fujita, they fared a lot better. Japan's defending national champs brought over an invasion force of 130, and 99 suited up for the game against the Raiders of Southern Oregon State in Ashland. "Our uniforms only go up that high," explained Akira Furukawa, commissioner of the Fighters' Kansai Conference.
The Shoguns of the Shotgun came on with a run-and-shoot attack that frustrated the Raiders' antimissile defenses. The Fighters' 158-pound quarterback, Ryuhei Shibakawa, picked apart the secondary with an arsenal of 5-yard look-ins, 10-yard posts and 15-yard curls. Shibakawa completed 32 of 47 passes to seven different receivers for 382 yards.
Southern Oregon State, of course, is not exactly one of the great powers of American football. The dinky NAIA school was 2-6-1 last season, and since December, when the Raiders beat Kwansei in the Japanese port city of Kobe, 49-24, the Americans had practiced together for only four days. In Ashland last week, the rusty Raider defenders were as predictable as last season's Miami Vice wardrobe; they alternated three-and four-man fronts the whole game. "We don't even have a stunt," grumbled defensive end Kevin Mason. "By the fourth quarter, I thought we'd be ahead by at least 50 points." Instead, the Raiders, who trailed 14-7 at the half, barely got away with a 21-17 win.
In a way, it was a moral victory for Kwansei. The Fighter players are about the size of an American high school team, and not a big high school team at that. Their defensive line averages 5'11" and 185 pounds, which is 4 inches shorter and 65 pounds lighter than Southern Oregon's offensive front. But the Fighters are superbly conditioned; they practice up to six hours a day and play a tightly controlled game modeled on the tenets of Japanese industry. It's all precision, timing and execution.
Kwansei nearly overcame its shortcomings with speed and mobility. Unfortunately, the Raiders had a secret weapon in Rene Knott, a 215-pound senior tailback, who rumbled for 254 yards on 23 carries, including an 86-yard touchdown run the second time he had the ball. One Kwansei defender said Knott resembled "Mt. Fuji with toes."
"We were like a small dog against an elephant," said Furukawa from beneath the bill of his Jack Daniels Field Tester cap. "Our boys were a little frightened by the big bodies, but they showed the fighting spirit of kamikazes."
Football in Japan has always had a certain samurai quality. It was introduced in 1934 by an American missionary and survived the war only among naval cadets, who were allowed to play the Western game but had to call it gaikyu—literally, "armored ball." The sport received a boost in the early 1970s, when Japanese TV began broadcasting NFL and NCAA games. Now 200 or so colleges play football in Japan, and many have picked up fearsome nicknames: the Teikyo Assassins, the Takushoku Rattlesnakes, the Kyoto Gangsters, the Dokkyo Green Monsters and the Tsurumi Undertakers.
"I like the hard-hitting sound of helmets crashing," says Kwansei's 138-pound wide receiver Hideji (Magic Monkey) Horiko, who caught six passes for 111 yards against Southern Oregon. "If a baseball player gets excited, he can do nothing to the enemy. But we can." Many Japanese parents think the game is too rough and won't allow their sons to compete. They point to Tadashi Saruki, the quarterback who led Kwansei to the national title in 1977 and broke his neck while scrambling in a game the following year. A Methodist college in Nishinomiya, near Osaka, Kwansei has won 17 of the 40 Koshien Bowls—games that are the closest Japan has to a collegiate national championship—played to date. Three current Fighter coaches apprenticed under Southern Oregon State's Chuck Mills. Bald and benevolent, Mills sports a Super Bowl ring he won in 1967 as an assistant coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. He took over at Utah State that year, and in 1971 flew the Aggies to Japan to play the first football game between Japanese and American colleges. Loaded with future NFL draft picks, Utah State slapped down a couple of Japanese all-star teams by scores of 50-6 and 45-6. "The biggest kid we faced was a 180-pound tackle," Mills recalls. "And he looked like he was 220 compared to the rest of them."
As head coach at Wake Forest, Mills returned to Japan in 1974 to play two more all-star squads, winning 35-0 and 28-3. Eventually he became a sort of patron saint of football in Japan, where they call him football no chi-chi, which roughly means father of the modern Japanese game. Every year the outstanding player in Japanese college ball is awarded the Mills Trophy.
When Mills took the Raiders to Japan in December, the Americans were stunned by the number of Japanese football players who smoke. And they were astonished by the cost of land. No college in that island nation can afford its own stadium. Football programs must share fields with baseball, rugby and soccer. Some teams play on dirt.
The most glaring difference the Japanese found in America was in the locker room. "In toilet, no door," says Horiko, blushing. "We are ashamed when somebody find us." There are other dissimilarities. Japanese players have to buy their own equipment, which is made in the States; none of the coaches is paid; and there are no scholarships. In fact, almost no athlete gets a scholarship in Japan. "Some schools pay football players under table," says Furukawa. "Maybe tuition free, but cannot find out."
The Raiders don't hand out scholarships, either. The only free rides were the tours they gave the Kwansei players. One local attraction visited by Shibakawa and defensive lineman Hirokazu Murakami was the Ashland police station. There they were fingerprinted, had mug shots taken and got tossed into a holding cell. "It deepened my understanding of American culture," Murakami said.
But the best cultural exchange was transacted between Horiko and former Raider cornerback Tracy (Toast) Reeves.
"Are you called Toast because of color?" asked Magic Monkey.
"No," Toast replied. "It's 'cause I always get burned."
Horiko promised that the next time the Fighters meet the Raiders the outcome will be different. "We'll beat you, for sure," he said. "Then, maybe, Oklahoma. If not, Yokohama."
The Fighters played an impressive first half as Shibakawa threw some heroic passes.
Shibakawa & Co. were outweighed by the likes of the Raiders' Mason, but not in courtesy.
The Japanese team warmed up against the majestic backdrop of Oregon's Cascades.