For most people around the world, football means just what the word suggests: a sport played primarily with the feet in which the ball is rarely touched with the hands.
But there is, of course, another version of football — actually derived from rugby — that is wildly popular in the U.S., in which the ball is touched with the feet only a few times in a game.
Welcome to American football. While it isn’t as well known around the world as its American cousins baseball and basketball, football is growing in popularity, and the International Federation of American Football now has federations in 64 countries.
While sport in Japan might conjure up thoughts of homegrown judo and sumo or imports baseball and soccer, football has a small but enthusiastic following.
“Japanese fans are attracted to the speed and excitement of football,” says Rocky Alo, a 32-year-old from Hawaii who plays for the Elecom Kobe Finies in the XLeague, football’s top tier in Japan. “Some spectators might not know all the rules but they love the big plays, long passes and hard hits.”
Alo first came to Japan to play for IBM BigBlue in the XLeague in 2007. He spent two years with IBM before going back to Hawaii for a year and then returning to play for two years with the Nojima Sagamihara Rise. In 2012 he transferred to the Finies, where he starts at free safety and serves as defensive coordinator.
“I’m really glad I came to Japan to play football,” Alo says. “In addition to enjoying the country, I met my wife, who is also Hawaiian, here when I was playing for IBM and she was dancing for the Polynesian show at Tokyo Disneyland. After a few years of dating we got married back home in Hawaii. Soon we were expecting our first son and we decided to stay and have our child in Hawaii, where we would have the help and support of our family and friends.”
After a year in Hawaii, Alo received an offer to play for the Sagamihara Rise and jumped at the chance.
“The decision to come back was an easy one,” he says. “My wife and I were both excited about the opportunity to come back to Japan as we had both enjoyed our experiences here. A big reason we like living in Japan is that we both get to do what we love most: dance — my wife is a professional hula and Tahitian dancer — and play football.”
Football has been a huge part of Alo’s life. He began playing flag football (a version of the sport with less physical contact) when he was 5 years old and tackle football (the regular version) at age 8. He continued playing through high school, then went to junior college in California and finished up his last two years at Indiana State University.
“I owe everything I have now to football,” Alo explains. “Football has taught me to be a man. It has taught me how to follow instructions, work hard and how to work with others to achieve a goal. These are all lessons that I continue to use in my adult life today.
“Football has brought me to Japan, and Japan has brought my wife to me. I have been blessed with a beautiful wife and two healthy, strong and handsome sons — my second son is 8 months old — because of football.”
Alo says he likes the traditional Japanese approach toward playing sports.
“I am very impressed by the way athletes have such great respect for their elders — the whole senpai and kōhai seniors and juniors thing.
“Here, if a senior tells a junior to do something, he’ll do it without complaining or talking back, even if he thinks it is wrong. It’s much different from the States, where if a senior orders a hothead kid to do something, he won’t care if the person is older or has been there longer — if the kid thinks he’s right and the senior is wrong, he won’t do what he is told.”
There are a number of Americans playing in the XLeague, whose teams are permitted to have up to four foreign players. Teams can only field two non-Japanese players at the same time.
“Sometimes foreign players who come to Japan to play football have difficulty fitting in, getting stressed out and complaining, but I’ve never had any problems myself, playing football or in my daily life in Japan,” Alo says. “Keeping an open mind and remembering that this is their country and they have their own way of doing things and learning to adapt works for me.”
Alo, who is half-Hawaiian and half-Samoan, says he sees many similarities between Hawaii and Japan.
“I actually think Hawaii has more in common with Japan than the rest of the U.S. In the Polynesian culture I grew up in in Hawaii, people respect their elders. Here in Japan the culture of respect remains strong, and it’s something I really admire about the Japanese.
“The food cultures in Hawaii and Japan are similar. Hawaiians and Japanese both love raw fish and seafood; in Hawaii we have poke, a raw seafood salad, and in Japan they have sushi. Hawaiians eat rice every day, the same as in Japan. Hawaiians have a long history of eating saimin, a noodle dish similar to Japanese ramen. Hawaiians also take off their shoes before entering the home like in Japan.”
A dedicated family man, Alo believes Japan is a good place to raise children.
“I like how safe it is here. I can let my 4-year-old son go down to the corner park with the neighborhood kids on his own. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting him do that back home.
“I also think living in Japan is good for my kids. While I will continue to instill my American and Polynesian culture in my children, I like the fact that they are learning two languages and experiencing a different culture here. I think this gives them a big advantage over other children growing up back home.”
Alo says the salary he receives is adequate and he appreciates two of the perks of the job: housing and plane tickets for his family back to Hawaii once a year.
“I know everyone sees Hawaii for the beaches and all of that but for me the most important thing is family. Japan is a wonderful place to live but I do miss my family back home. Both my wife’s family and my family are back in Hawaii. Our parents, our siblings, our nieces and nephews are all in Hawaii.
“In our Polynesian ways, family is very important and it is a big part of our lives — respecting our families and growing up together matter a lot. I look forward to going back to Hawaii at least once a year, when I can see the rest of my family, and my kids can spend some time playing with their cousins.”
The XLeague spring season starts on April 29, culminating on June 14 with the Pearl Bowl.
Telling Lives, which used to be on the Saturday Community Page, will now appear on the last Monday Community Page of the month, and occasionally on the Domestic News pages. Comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org