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Original Issue


It is the running I miss when I watch football on television in Japan. There is no shortage of pass plays. But when I remember the football I saw three years ago, before I left for Japan, I can recall men proceeding upfield without benefit of the forward pass.

I can watch the Super Bowl and the Rose Bowl on Japanese TV. I can even watch Monday Night Football, once a month. But as those games are seen in Japan, fourth down often follows second down and a punt comes after first down.

A Japanese friend who lived in Houston for several years fell in love with the Oilers and then returned home to find that the game as he knew it in the West had been transformed into something vaguely reminiscent but fundamentally skewed. He became so infuriated by the locally interpreted gridiron offerings that he spent $10,000 for a satellite antenna so that he might pick up the fuzzy but familiar signals of the three major U.S. networks. For a long time he was not able to get the picture and sound right and wondered how he could tap into the U.S. Armed Forces television broadcasts. He was a desperate man and wanted me to share his desperation. I told him that I could not. I was too busy being mystified—and amused.

Football may be an American game, but it is becoming an increasingly popular one in Japan, where it has been played for 50 years and where the nation's collegiate and corporate champions meet each January in the Rice Bowl. That long history, meticulously documented in the curiously titled book Limitless Advance, would suggest that the Japanese are very familiar with the game. That is true within certain circles—football circles. But for most of Japan, where baseball is king, football is just beginning to show signs of significance in terms of television ratings.

The Super Bowl, which has been shown in Japan for 15 years, will draw about 15% of the total TV audience when it is aired, on tape, in prime time, on Feb. 1. Monday Night Football, which began to be broadcast three years ago, still draws only about 2% of the viewers watching TV well after midnight. But the game they see is not American football: It is American football on Japanese television. The operative word here is Japanese.

That means, for instance, that the Rose Bowl is hosted by two young men in kimonos who, in the glad-to-have-you-with-us preliminaries, say clever things to a middle-aged woman wearing an apron. She is called the Rose Bowl Aunt and is on hand to prepare snacks. In some years the kimonos of the young men will even correspond to the colors of the Rose Bowl contenders—say, the pale blue of UCLA and the black-and-gold of Iowa.

The commentators on last year's Super Bowl telecast were Japanese baseball players. They did not feign knowledge of football. Rather, they were there specifically because they were ignorant of the game. The assumption was that most viewers were, too, says Masamichi Amano, producer and director of football telecasts on the Tokyo Broadcasting System. The idea was that the audience would establish a bond with the commentators in their mutual innocence of the game. They could learn together, seeking guidance from the all-knowing play-by-play man, whose instruction on the game's fine points was punctuated by many repetitions of the phrase "fusto-downo."

And if a run-oriented offensive series was edited out of a touchdown drive, no one was going to complain. They were not going to complain because they would not have been aware of it, much less interested in it.

As with all things in Japan that look surprisingly and deceptively the way they do at home, adjustments are necessary for peace of mind. This means that Monday Night Football should be viewed as an extended highlights film, one in which the editor does not deem running plays and defense to be highlights. To him they are noisy interruptions between pass plays and therefore to be remanded to the cutting room floor.

The explanation for this is hierarchical, Amano says. In Japan, as in America, the glory goes to the quarterback. Wide receivers get to bask in his reflected light. The reasoning is: The best players want to throw the ball, or at least catch it. It is lesser men who will choose to run with it. And those devoid of status will play defense.

True to form, Japanese football teams do not rush the ball very much. They call fiendishly complicated pass patterns instead. Without the physical bulk to muster much of a power game, Japanese teams rely on quickness, guile and a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to practice the intricate until it is mastered. The late Woody Hayes and his "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense at Ohio State would never have made it in Japan; LaVell Edwards and his BYU quarterbacks would be accorded the status of gridiron geniuses.

While all that might explain why Japanese fans and players disdain running, blocking and tackling, it does not quite do justice to Japan's remarkable capacity to re-create the world according to an image of its liking. Japan has made cultural borrowing an art in itself. For each of the past few years, two teams of genuine American college football players have gone to Japan in the fall to play in a game called the Coca-Cola Bowl. During a pregame show the players demonstrate blocking and tackling techniques for the television audience. The American players seem to enjoy this: They do their blocking and tackling in slow motion against young women outfitted in football uniforms and pads. The television commentators note the broad shoulders and long legs of the foreigners. Behind the commentators sit more young Japanese girls, dressed in cheerleader outfits. Like the young women who frequently fill the background on all manner of Japanese television programs, the cheerleaders giggle and nod on cue.

Here I sit, waiting for the Super Bowl, hoping that it will not be tampered with too much, but knowing that my hope is in vain. Then again, if the game were not remodeled it would lose its most essential quality. It would be like football as played in San Diego. It would not be Japanese.

Brooklyn-born Michael Shapiro now lives in Tokyo and has written a book about Japan.