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Conference attempts to address key problems in Japanese football

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Many individuals in Japanese football circles have long known there are key issues that need to be addressed, but didn’t have a place where they could have open dialogue about the problems.

They have one now.

Last Saturday, the first-ever “football conference” was held, bringing together around 100 people, including top coaches, league officials and others who are apprehensive about Japanese football and its future, at the head office of Kyodo News in Tokyo. It was hosted by a Japanese football magazine.

They addressed several issues pertaining to Japanese football, such as the format of the Rice Bowl national championship and what needs to be done to increase the popularity of the game in Japan.

But whatever the topic was, the fundamental problem came down to a lack of vision and professionalism among the sport’s governing bodies, such as the Japan American Football Association and the X League, which operates the top domestic circuit.

For instance, during a panel discussion they talked about the national team and how it needs to be developed. But the panelists, which included head coaches and an X League club president, agreed they would have to talk about the big picture, not just individual problems.

Kiyoyuki Mori, who guided the Kajima (now Lixil) Deers to the Rice Bowl title in the 2009 season as their head coach, was a vocal participant during the discussion.

“You can’t just think of the national team,” said Mori, who will take over as the University of Tokyo head coach this year. “You’ve got to have a wider vision and think about the whole of Japanese football and how it should be.”

Shinzo Yamada, head coach for the X League’s IBM Big Blue and a JAFA development director, had a presentation on concussions, which have become a serious issue in the United States.

One of the symbolic topics during the panel discussion was the format of the Rice Bowl, which is played at the end of every season between the X League champion and collegiate champion.

The Rice Bowl is considered Japan’s national championship game, but an influx of American players to X League clubs in recent years has made it more difficult for collegiate teams to win. As a result, many football experts have started questioning the meaning of the game.

Makoto Ohashi, a former Obic Seagulls head coach who now serves as the club’s general manager, said it would be a good idea for the collegiate champions to play against the Ivy League champions in the Rice Bowl.

“Those who play collegiate football set their goal at Koshien (which hosts the Koshien Bowl national collegiate championship),” Ohashi said. “But if they get another goal above that, challenging the Americans, I think it’d give them a dream.”

JAFA executive Yuji Shimizu hinted that the main sponsor for the Rice Bowl would retain its role for another four years and the format could not be changed during that period. But he added the conference was a valuable opportunity to discuss how the bowl game should be staged after that.

Raising the popularity of the game is another goal they have, but there’s a long way to go. Case in point: According to surveys done by Nielsen Company Japan discussed during the conference, the majority of ordinary people in Japan don’t even know of the existence of the X League.

Mitsunobu Ishii, president of X League club Nojima Sagamihara Rise, suggested the league, whose office is mostly run by part-time staffers, needs to become more professional and dedicate more resources toward promoting the league.

Some have said this year’s Rice Bowl between the eventual winner Fujitsu Frontiers and Kwansei Gakuin University drew a crowd of over 33,000 to Tokyo Dome, so there is potential to grow the sport. They also mentioned the rising number of American players, some of whom played at major NCAA universities, has contributed to the gradual growth of a fanbase of foreign residents in Japan as well.