Speak to an Englishman and football can only mean soccer. An American immediately dreams of the pigskin and the glory of the Super Bowl. For a Kiwi, of course, it’s the scream of the Haka and the mighty All Blacks of Rugby Union fame. But to an Australian sports fan, the word can mean only one thing — Australian Rules.
In Japan this game is so poorly understood that the name has been abridged to “AussieBall.”
And it’s not only among the Japanese that the misconceptions flourish. Most foreigners here have a similarly poor understanding of the game that inspires near-religious fervor among its converts.
One group of Australian expats in Tokyo are doing their best to enlighten the uneducated. The Goannas Australian Rules Football Club is a bastion of Australian culture in Tokyo.
In their clubhouse in Shinjuku (appropriately called the Clubhouse), this group of football-deprived antipodeans have attempted the near-impossible — an Aussie Rules club in the middle of a concrete jungle.
If you’re imagining a typical football club, complete with training field, gym and the other trappings often found among the chest-beating misogynist culture endemic to body-contact sports the world over, then think again.
About the only thing this clubhouse has in common with its Australian contemporaries is beer and a love of football.
If this all sounds a little facetious, then it’s simply because the club does not take itself particularly seriously.
Like many of the expat sporting organizations in Japan, it is more an excuse for a party than a concerted effort to play top-quality sport.
Club President Callum McAree said the club was established about 10 years ago with the sole purpose of getting a game of footy.
With that end in mind, the founders of the club approached local universities and went on a recruitment drive.
“The club set up stalls at universities and asked the students if they wanted to play. We guaranteed a trip to Australia once a year and that helped rope them in,” McAree said.
The organizational aspect of establishing a league in Japan is fraught with problems. Currently there are only three clubs in Japan — all in the Tokyo area.
The university club is the Goannas’ main competition. Known as the Samurai, the playing personnel include students ranging from freshmen to seniors.
“The Samurai have players from Waseda, Senshu and Keio universities. The average age of their players is 19 and the average age of our players is 29,” McAree said, adding that while the skill level of the Japanese is not as good as the Aussies, they more than make up for it in fitness.
The other club in the area — the Go-Kongs — consists of former Samurai players. Also known as the Old Boys, these guys invariably drifted away from the game after completing university.
Many of them, however, wandered back over the years and formed a new club.
The Goannas’ organizing committee aims to play a game every two weeks, with training on the other week in Yoyogi Park. As McAree explains, however, this is not always possible.
“During university holidays, the main opposition just disappears,” he said.
“The hardest part of the organization is securing the grounds. We played at Ibaraki recently and had a good-size field, but often we have to settle for soccer or rugby grounds.”
A major problem with recruiting is the lack of exposure in Japan. McAree said many Japanese initially think they are signing up for a game that is similar to rugby.
“You can’t get Aussie Rules on any channel over here. The Australian Football League sends us their official highlights tape — what they would show on overseas cable television stations that want to show a package of highlights. We show that tape in our clubhouse in Shinjuku three nights a month,” he said.
One of the more challenging aspects of introducing the game in Japan is simply trying to explain the rules.
While most sports resemble a lawless ballet of confusion to the uninitiated, Aussie Rules can appear to be a lawless war of confusion — where the object is to maim and disfigure the opposition. Getting over these stereotypes can be difficult.
With the establishment of three teams in Tokyo, the league is beginning to take off in Japan.
There has been talk of a team from Osaka, and the idea of a Yokohama club has been going around for a while. Unfortunately neither has developed yet.
Support from the AFL has only come about recently. The Australian administrative body is actively promoting the game in various locations throughout the world, according to Football Administration Officer Roger Berryman.
“The situation at the moment is that we have other international leagues established, but they’re much further down the track in terms of development than Japan,” Berryman said.
“If we were to establish a league in Japan, we’d have to look at what the participation rate is like — the number of players and the number of clubs.”
While the AFL has no current development plans for Japan, that possibility has not been ruled out for the future.
“We would establish a senior league first and then look at junior development,” Berryman said. “Obviously we would prefer it to be local players rather than a bunch of expat Aussies having a kick.”
McAree is more optimistic about the possibility of an official league here. He says the participation rate of the locals is much higher here than in most areas of Southeast Asia.
The highlight of the Japan Aussie Rules season is the annual Japan vs. Australia derby, which is played over two days in Nagano.
While the game is not nearly as serious here as it is in Australia, the annual international game is no laughing matter.
“The Japanese boys get really fired up when they pull on the Japan jersey,” McAree said.
“One player shaved his head except for a circle of hair which he died red. With his white skull it looked just like the Japanese flag.”