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A total of six Japanese players were chosen in the Canadian Football League’s April draft, but none are declaring victory after having only earned a flight to North America.

All must now fight to make the active rosters of their respective teams by putting on strong preseason performances.

The 2021 CFL season was originally slated to start on June 10, but that start was pushed back to Aug. 5 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The players will depart for Canada next week ahead of the start of training camp on July 10.

The regular season will start on Aug. 5 and each team will play 14 games – four fewer than the usual schedule. It will be the league’s first action since November 2019 after the 2020 season was canceled as a result of the pandemic.

The battles faced by the Japanese group will be even tougher after the number of global roster spots was reduced from two to one per team following the league’s latest collective bargaining agreement with its players association.

Akio Yamagishi, a Fujitsu Frontiers linebacker who was drafted in the second round of the CFL Global Draft by the Montreal Alouettes, is thrilled to test his skills in the Canadian professional league after coming up through the semi-professional X League, where the majority of players compete while holding full-time jobs.

Running back Taku Lee (75), seen during the CFL Global Combine in 2020, was a candidate for the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program earlier this year. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
Running back Taku Lee (75), seen during the CFL Global Combine in 2020, was a candidate for the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program earlier this year. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

“It’ll be my first time playing overseas but what I’ve heard from predecessors, players over there compete as if it’s do-or-die for them,” the 26-year-old Yamagishi, a former Chuck Mills Trophy winner for Kwansei Gakuin University, said during an online news conference on Friday.

“I’ve been a company employee for nearly five years but as far as I’m going over there as a pro, I feel like I’ve got to show what I can truly do and bring value to my team. So I’m not going to hold back mentally and I’ll keep believing in my potential.”

Running back Taku Lee is perhaps the most notable among the Japanese contingent as he had been invited as a candidate for the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program this spring. Although he did not remain in the program, the 26-year-old is determined to make a positive impression in North America.

“Hopefully I will be remembered by Canadian fans,” said Lee, who was named MVP after leading his Obic Seagulls to victory at the 2020 Japan X Bowl. “I want my name to be recognized in both the CFL and the NFL.”

Lee is not the only player in the group with NFL aspirations hoping to raise his stock in Canada.

Kicker Toshiki Sato believes that he is not too far away from reaching the NFL and believes he’ll be able to prove that by potentially competing in the CFL. The IBM BigBlue player insisted that he would treat his trip to Canada as a springboard toward the next level.

“Toronto has another good kicker and I will have to compete with him for a roster spot,” said Sato, who has trained under former NFL kicker Nick Novak and played in The Spring League in Texas last fall. “But once you go to the NFL, each team has about three different kickers and there’s real competition, so I consider having a rival to be a positive. Hopefully, I will have a good result in the CFL and help the team get the Grey Cup.”

Lee’s teammate Takeru Yamasaki, who has successfully kicked 73-yard field goals in practice and was selected by the BC Lions, hopes that good performances in the CFL will draw attention from U.S. teams.

“The CFL’s field is bigger than the NFL’s and the point-scoring system is different, so it gives you an edge if you can kick further,” Yamazaki said. “So if I come through with my strength and make the active roster, it will help me make a good push toward the NFL.”

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