The Rice Bowl: Japan’s Unbalanced American Football Playoffs

The Rice Bowl: Japan’s Unbalanced American Football Playoffs

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Picture: alexlmx / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Yes, there's an American football playoff in Japan with a long and proud tradition - but some wonder whether it's really a fair contest.

Yes, the headline is correct. Not only is American football played in Japan. There’s also a national championship–known as the Rice Bowl–to determine who is the best team in the country. However, while the United States’ Super Bowl is played between two professional teams in the NFL, the Rice Bowl is played between the best college team and the best semi-professional team.

Though American football has a more niche following compared to baseball, the fandom is fervent. The most recent Rice Bowl saw an attendance of over 31,000 people, which filled up over half of the venue at Tokyo Dome. It was the 73rd Rice Bowl overall.

Here’s a brief history of the Rice Bowl – and why some argue it’s not quite a fair contest.

American Football and Japan

In 1925, an American missionary named Paul Rusch traveled to Japan to help the YMCA with reconstruction post-Great Kanto Earthquake. Rusch specialized in youth education and rural development. In 1934, Rusch collaborated with athletic faculty at Rikkyo University to organize the first football game at Jingu Stadium in November 1934.

The match was played between college students and foreign members of the Yokohama Athletic Club. It drew a crowd of 15,000 people, which was unprecedented at the time. The college students won in this landmark game. Three years later, the first football conferences were formulated, with Kanto (Eastern Japan) and Kansai (Western Japan) having their own respective factions.

American football was put on hold during World War II (1939-1945), but was picked up again in the 1950s. Though it has yet to reach the popularity of baseball, the fact that the game has persisted for over 73 years is a testament to the fandom. Moreover, Paul Rusch is known as the “Father of American Football” in Japan, and is memorialized in an MVP trophy of the same name.

The Rice Bowl

As stated earlier, the Rice Bowl is played between the Japan X (semi-professional) champions, and the Koshien (collegiate) champions. Kwansei Gakuin rules the collegiate roost, while the Obic Seagulls hold the most Japan X wins. However, in most Rice Bowls, the professional team usually proves the victor.


Japan College Football Greatest Team


A clip from Rice Bowl 57 (2003), where Ritsumeikan University would go on to beat the Onward Oaks, unusual for a college team. (Source: YouTube)

Interestingly enough, despite having a prestigious football team, the director of Kwansei Gakuin, Toriuchi, recently called the Rice Bowl’s achievement gap into question. These concerns were also voiced after the 72nd Rice Bowl, where they lost to the Fujitsu Frontiers (52-17). On top of that, their star quarterback, Okuno Kousei, had sustained a serious head injury during the game:


There’s a wide disparity of skill [in the Rice Bowl]. Is football meant to be this way?

Director Toriuchi

The director of the Japan Association countered this, saying that the Rice Bowl is an annual New Year’s tradition in Japan, and as such, the tournament should continue.

Is It Fair?

I was unable to find a definitive answer as to why the tournament was called the Rice Bowl. The closest I found was a Wikipedia entry stating that it was meant to mimic the name of American college football events, such as the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl. Since rice is seen as almost synonymous with Japan, the naming seems natural.

However, the name’s unknown origin pales in the reality of the skill disparity between the semi-professional and college players. For more context, that would be like the New York Giants playing against the Clemson Tigers.

While both teams are technically at the top of their game, they come from not only two different leagues, but completely different life experiences. Those who play in semi-pro most likely played college football, especially American players. Even if you were to argue the Rice Bowl is an exhibition game, and nowhere near as high stakes as the NFL, being pitted against someone at a completely different level can affect a team’s morale.

Have you ever attended an American football game in Japan? What was your experience like?

Do you think the Rice Bowl’s matchup is fair? What changes would you propose, if any?

For the complete taping of Rice Bowl 73, please click here.

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Thalia Harris

Thalia-Marie Harris is a North Jersey/New York native, currently residing in Tokyo, where she works as an ESL teacher and freelance writer. Her previous pieces have appeared in Metropolis Tokyo and pacificREVIEW.

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