How Marijuana Brought Down a Japanese Football Team

How Marijuana Brought Down a Japanese Football Team

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How Marijuana Brought Down a Japanese Football Team
Picture: Canva
Nihon University used to have an American football team. But then some players smoked a joint - and all hell broke loose.

American football (アメフト, ame-futo in Japanese) is a fairly popular pastime in Japan. And lately, it’s also been the source of some controversy. When the dust settled, Nihon University’s football team had been disbanded. And it’s all because a player decided to light up a doobie to relax.

American football in Japan

Football player with grid superimposed over them
Picture: vectorfusionart / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

American football has a modicum of popularity, with teams at both the college as well as semi-professional level. Like baseball in Japan, it’s an American import that somehow took root and took off. Though not nearly as popular as baseball, it’s been a staple sport since American missionary Paul Rusch pulled together the first scrimmage in 1934. It took off after the war in 1950.

Every year, Japan holds the Rice Bowl, a championship playoff that pits the semi-professional X League leader against the top of the collegiate teams (Koshien).

The game hasn’t been without controversy. Some have questioned whether it’s fair to put college athletes against people who play even semi-professionally. The X League team usually wins the Rice Bowl and the skill gap between the two tiers of teams is so obvious that it’s made headlines.

Nihon University’s reputation has never been good

Nihon University player Miyagawa Daisuke apologizes for committing an after-snap tackle.
Nihon University player Miyagawa Daisuke apologizes for committing an after-snap tackle. Miyagawa says his coaches pressured him into making the prohibited play.

One of the schools known for its American football team is Nihon University in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. The school has run a football club, the Nihon University Phoenix, since 1940. Since then, it’s racked up 21 Koshien victories as well as 4 Rice Bowl Wins. An impressive record.

But the Phoenix football club is also somewhat notorious. It previously made headlines back around when UJ started publishing in 2018. Back then, a player tackled the opposing quarterback several seconds after he’d clearly snapped the ball – a gross violation of football rules.


This wasn’t the action of a single player, however. The tackler, Miyagawa Daisuke, told reporters that his coaches had pressured him into making the illegal play. Indeed, a third-party commission later that year concluded that Miyagawa was believable and his coaches were not, and that they believed the two ordered him to make the play to take out the opposing team’s quarterback.

Don’t do drugs in Japan, kids!

Marijuana plants
Picture: EN / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Fast forward to this year. After reports that a student had been seen with marijuana in the dorms at Nihon University, the university conducted a search in July. The school found remnants of what appeared to be illegal drugs.

For some reason, the school waited 12 days before consulting the police about what to do. Publicly, however, university chairperson Hayashi Mariko denied the school had found any illegal substances.

That stonewalling came crashing down a few days later, however, when police arrested a student on the American football team for possession. Police further discovered more use of marijuana and other drugs on the campus. In the end, they arrested three students.

Those not familiar with Japanese law – especially those from countries where marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized – might wonder why this is such a big deal. But in Japan, marijuana, like many other drugs, is still illegal. Japanese society imposes a heavy stigma on any illegal activity – drug use included. Celebrities who’ve been arrested for drug use have seen their careers evaporate overnight.

That’s not to say that no one is fighting for change. There are organizations and even a political party fighting to legalize marijuana use. However, they seem to have little support. There’s no large grassroots movement or popular drive to legalize marijuana like we’ve seen in the United States. For now and into the conceivable future, marijuana use remains hidden in the shadows.

Clear signs of a cover-up

After the arrest, the school suspended the club indefinitely and set up a committee to investigate what had happened. What came out in the ensuing months was that the Nihon University football club had a pervasive problem with marijuana use – and that the school had been covering it up.

During the committee’s investigation, it came out that university higher-ups knew about marijuana use at the school a full year before. In October of 2022, a parent/guardian reported suspicions of use. A month later, a student turned themselves in and ratted out his sempai to boot.

At the time, the university received information from the police. They supposedly used it to “educate” athletes on the importance of steering clear of the devil’s lettuce.

Between this, the 12-day gap in reporting the newest incident to the police, and comments by other administrators denying knowledge of drugs on campus, the committee concluded that this “use of individual judgment removed from societal norms was the greatest cause of loss of faith in the institution.”

From discovery to dissolution (maybe?)

Nihon University
Picture: Mugimaki / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

All this raised the obvious question: what now? What would become of Nihon University’s American football team in the wake of this latest scandal?

At the end of November, the school opened a committee hearing on competitive sports at the institution. Their goal: decide how best to respond to the scandal.

The committee decided that the best way forward was to dissolve the university’s American football club, ending its 80-year legacy.

Since then, there’s been a vicious debate – both in the school and among the public – as to whether the school should go forward with this death penalty decree. At a December 6th meeting with parents, many parents and football team members begged the school to keep or resuscitate the program. Online petitioners collected 30,000 signatures beseeching the university to keep the club intact. Even players and staff from rival schools were calling for the club to be saved.

The dissolution is still going forward and was re-affirmed in a meeting last week. At the same time, the school is also saying it wants to create a new football team.

Yep, that’s right: the new Phoenix football team will arise from the ashes of the old. Hopefully, for the school and its football fortunes, those ashes will have a little less bud in them.


日本大学フェニックス反則タックル問題 . Wikipedia JP

日大アメフト部員、2人目逮捕 大麻譲り受けた疑い 捜索から2カ月. Asahi Shimbun

日大アメフト部コーチ「留学生が、大麻を部内に持ち込んだ」委員会の答申書公表される. Nikkan Sports

日大アメフト部、大麻で廃部「僕らの時代も吸っていた」OBが衝撃告白…悪質タックルの “被害者” 関学が撤回署名を開始. FLASH

日大アメフト部で20人が大麻使用か 寮内で吸引疑い 大半が昨季の4年生やOB 大学が昨秋調査. Nikkan Sports

「大麻拡散に目つぶった」 日大アメフト部の薬物問題巡り報告書公表. Mainichi Shimbun

日大アメフト部員逮捕、調査委設置へ…「空白の12日間」など学内対応を検証. Yomiuri Shimbun

【速報】日大アメフト部、理事会で「廃部」が決定 新たな部を作り直したい考え. NTV News

【日大アメフト部、廃部へ】撤回求めていた「3万の署名」にあった「意外な人物」の名前. News Post Seven

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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