by Mizuki Shumsky
February 27, 2018
When thinking about Japanese athletics, sports such as baseball, soccer, maybe even gymnastics come to mind. To the outside world, and even to most Japanese natives, American football goes rather unrecognized compared to these other sports in which the Japanese are extremely competitive on the global stage. Even so, the X-League (Japan’s professional football league) is widely recognized as the third best in the world after the NFL and CFL. Many former Division 1 and CFL athletes looking to continue their playing years often travel to Japan to pursue a tough and competitive career in the Pacific.
The X-League is divided into three divisions (X1, X2, X3) with 18, 16 and 19 teams per division respectively which are then split up into East, West and Central divisions. In addition, there are two types of teams in the X-League. The first is a “company” team, where players are typically employees and as such, professionals. The second is a “club” team, meaning there is a less restricted pool of potential players. Both types of teams are supported to varying degrees by sponsorship. Usually, there is one main sponsor on which the team relies, and such sponsors are included in the teams’ names. Both club and company teams are interchangeably integrated together amongst the 3 divisions.
Similar to soccer’s Premier League in England, the X-League’s format consists of relegation and promotion. Additionally, on-field playing rules emulate the NCAA format. Athletes from the US are often recruited to play in the league, though each team is limited to four players that are not of Japanese citizenship.
I recently had a chance to speak with Yuiichiro Araki; quarterback for the Nojima Sagamihara Rise of the X1 Central Division. The Rise have had a history of success, finishing in at least the top 3 of their division for the past decade, accumulating an impressive record of 58-30 during that time. This was personally my first correspondence with a player from the X-League, and I found it fascinating to get this insider’s perspective on the league and on Japanese football in general.
Growing up in Japan, most kids venture to baseball or soccer. More so, once they join a club team, be it in any sport, practice and games are a yearlong commitment. So, in a sense, there are not traditional sport “seasons.” Rather, your “chosen” sports’ season runs throughout the year. Making things even more difficult for the development of American football in Japan, fields, coaches, equipment and other football related resources are much harder to come by than in the United States, especially for younger players.
There are a handful of middle school club football teams, but excepting these, opportunities for children to participate in any form of organized football are quite thin. Thus, Yuiichiro, at a young age, along with his buddies, mostly played baseball and soccer. However, at the age of 6, he was introduced to football. From then, atypically for Japan, he continued playing baseball and soccer for around 3 more years. When discussing this time in his life, Yuiichiro told me:
“I was much more interested in football”.
Finally, after splitting time between all three sports, in middle school, he joined a football club to specialize his focus. Through middle school, his athletic prowess allowed him experiment with all positions. In high school, he settled into his primary role as quarterback. He also punted.
“In middle school I didn't have a specific position, though in high school I was quarterback strictly because I was much better at throwing than anyone else”.
Yuiichiro also quarterbacked Team Japan to a third place finish in the IFAF U-19 World Cup, a tournament organized by the International Federation of American Football in Canton, Ohio. When discussing his exciting experience in that tournament, he told me that he will never forget going up against Team Canada with a chance to face Team USA in the next game. Unfortunately, they were unable to hold on and heartbreakingly gave up their lead in the final minutes of the game.
From this experience, Yuiichiro learned that Japan’s level of play, though lower than that of the United States and Canada, was actually quite competitive. In addition, he told me that it was great experience for him, being a part of a tournament in which more than a few players would eventually make their way to the NFL. It was an extremely proud moment for him, to say the least.
The X-League is comprised of top Japanese as well as elite foreign talent.
“There are many former Division 1 players from the likes of Michigan and Arizona State in the league. All of our foreign players come from America. We don't have any from Europe,” said Yuiichiro.
One of Yuiichiro’s rivals at quarterback on the Sagamihara Rise is former University of Michigan star, Devin Gardner. Gardner had minor stints with the Patriots and Steelers before bringing his talents to Sagamihara. There, he received the X-League Rookie of the Year award in 2016. Thus, Yuiichiro’s competition is steep with the likes of Gardner ahead of him on the depth chart. The team has three quarterbacks and a total roster of around 65 players, so they are certainly not short changed on talent.
All this being said, life as a player in the X-League differs immensely from those living out NFL careers.
“All players work during the week and then we have games or practices on the weekends. Players are even required to purchase their own gear. Also, we only have around 6-7 games in the regular season, and 10 if you go all the way,” Yuiichiro explained. “It costs money to play. It’s impossible to sustain yourself solely off football,” he added.
That being said, facilities, especially in X1, are top-notch. Playing surfaces are turf and most stadiums have extensive seating for around 10,000 spectators. Fans are definitely not short changed and the players have a strong sense of pride in representing their region or company. Combined with the exceptionally high-level of competition, the X-League provides an excellent environment for players and fans alike.
Japanese players truly do play for the love of the game. The game is blowing up in Japan, and the competition produced in the X-League is definitely some of the best in the world. It certainly is an incredibly exciting time for Japanese football!
Mizuki Shumsky is a Business Development Associate with Podyum. Currently a senior at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA, he grew up in Tokyo where he lived until graduating from high school. As an avid baseball player, Mizuki played Japanese baseball throughout this time and transitioned to NCAA baseball when he started college in the US. Through that experience, he learned and saw firsthand how the same sport can be played so differently by different cultures. Ultimately, he hopes for people around the world to be able to have the the same wonderful experiences that sports have given to him.