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Koshien Bowl enjoys long, rich history

Sunday's game will be 68th edition of Japan's college national championship

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Located on the outskirts of Osaka with a unique ambience, Koshien Stadium is the symbolic sports icon in Japan.

But it doesn’t represent just baseball. It has a significant meaning here for American football and is considered the mecca of the sport, just like for baseball.

Every December, the collegiate national championship game, known as the Koshien Bowl, is played there. The Koshien Bowl, inaugurated in 1947 after the derequisition of the stadium by the U.S. armed forces, is the oldest football bowl game in the country, and the players vie to step onto the hallowed gridiron every year.

The Rice Bowl, now played between champions of the industrial X League and Koshien Bowl winner in January, also has a long tradition as it began the year after the Koshien Bowl. But many consider the Koshien Bowl is an exceptional, special game in Japanese football, which separates itself from other games.

Of course, the historic ballpark, which opened in 1924, helps spice up the game as even more of a high-profile event on the Japanese football scene.

“As you see it is so famous through high school baseball, that the place is widely recognized,” said Tomoaki Akura, a board member of the Kansai Collegiate American Football League and former head coach of the Konan University football team. “It’s almost made for the student-athletes. Of course it’s the home of the (Nippon Professional Baseball’s) Hanshin Tigers, but that’s a place every football player becomes desperate to be at.”

Akura compared the Koshien Bowl to the Rose Bowl, which is the oldest college bowl game in the United States, for its tradition and status in Japanese football. This year’s Koshien Bowl, which will be played between Kwansei Gakuin University and Nihon University on Sunday, is the 68th edition. Kickoff is 1:05 p.m.

Kwansei Gakuin assistant head coach Kazuki Omura has won Koshien Bowl titles as a player and coach. He’s also been to the Rice Bowl as a member of the X League’s Obic Seagulls. He insisted that trotting onto the natural turf for the Koshien Bowl brings even more exceptional feelings for those belonging to colleges in Kansai, where the sport is more popular than in other areas in Japan.

“The people in Kansai understand that Koshien holds the championship game, and they know Koshien is the holy ground,” Omura said.

Rube Redfield, a long-time Japan resident and professor at Osaka University of Economics, is an enthusiastic football observer, both in the United States and Japan, and has attended the Koshien Bowl for more than three decades. The Chicago native said that the Koshien Bowl is “the only game in Japan” in an assertive tone.

“The Rice Bowl, it doesn’t count,” Redfield said, perhaps on behalf of the collegiate players, while sitting in the stands at Nagai Stadium in Osaka for Kansai League games in late November.

“So all we got is the Koshien Bowl. Each team points to the Koshien Bowl,” he added, wearing a replica jersey of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Asked if he’s been to a Rice Bowl game by a chance, Redfield quickly denied it by saying, “Nah, the season’s over with the Koshien Bowl.”

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When football in Japan is discussed, Chuck Mills’ name can’t be ignored. Many regard Mills as one of the fathers of Japanese footabll. In 1971, the then-Utah State University head coach took his team to Japan to play games against Japanese All-Star select college teams, and it bolstered the development of the Japanese game.

Mills, who was on the sidelines in Super Bowl I as an assistant coach under Hank Stram for the Kansas City Chiefs, told The Japan Times in an email interview that the Koshien Bowl means so much to him and it stands out as one of the important games in his long coaching career.

“The Koshien Bowl is a special place for me, (and) it is a special place in history,” Mills said. “It’s a key landmark in the development of American football in Japan.”

The best player each season is given the Chuck Mills Trophy at the Koshien Bowl. It is the Japanese equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, which is handed to each season’s best collegiate player in the U.S., and the presentation of the trophy is a part of the highlight of the bowl game. Mills has frequently flown over to Japan to present the award that’s named after him to the recipients.

“(Presenting) the Mills Trophy is the greatest honor I have ever received and I regard it with tremendous reverence,” Mills, 85, said. “It has made me feel I am a part of Japan. A part of me is there. I never cease to be humbled by this great honor Japanese-American football has given me.”

Nowadays, the Koshien Bowl involves more schools and players than ever before. It had long been the contest between the Kansai and Kanto champions. But in 2009, a playoff system was installed and winners of each regions of the nation now advance to the postseason to play for Koshien Bowl berths. Now the bowl is the playoff final between the east and west (the schools of Kanto and Kansai have always advanced, though).

Overall attendance for the bowl has dropped since the 1980s, when there was a football boom in Japan and more than 40,000 fans would attend games. In the last decade, the average attendance for the game is just below 24,000.

But organizers hope that the two popular teams, Kwansei Gakuin and Nihon University, will bring more fans to the stadium this year.