EARLIEST AMERICAN FOOTBALL IN JAPAN

AMERICAN FOOTBALL: KEY ROLE OF YC&AC RUGGERS IN SPORT’S 1934 OFFICIAL LAUNCH IN JAPAN
One of the strangest and most extraordinary stories regarding the YC&AC’s involvement in the introduction of a major western sport in Japan relates to American football and I am guessing that very few if any YC&AC members know that the club has any connection at all with the start of American football in Japan, let alone the first official match.
American football didn’t take the conventional entry paths of entry into Japan – either a small group of non-Japanese taking up the sport and it slowly spreading before a few Japanese started to play it, or else a group of Japanese at a single university like Keio university deciding to learn the sport from a foreign teacher, practicing for a long time and then challenging the YC&AC to a match..
Unlike with the first official games of soccer, rugby, hockey, etc. in Japan., American football started with a big BANG and a big exhibition at the Meiji Shrine grounds on Thanksgiving Day (November 29) in 1934 watched by 15,000 (according to the JAFA* today – the Japan Times at the time said 10,000) people including Prince Chichibu and the American ambassador Joseph Grew who gave a speech as part of the ‘colorful’ opening ceremonies. These included the Florida Dance Hall orchestra playing the football songs of leading US colleges.
According to the Japan American Football Association’s website the sport had been introduced to Japan earlier the same year by ‘the Father of American Football in Japan’ Paul Rusch, an American missionary teaching at Rikkyo University, who formed the country’s first team.
It appears this big game was part of a plan to dramatically kick-start the sport and encourage other universities to form clubs both in the Tokyo area and also in Kansai. Perhaps remembering how the victory of the First Tokyo Higher School (Ichiko) over a team of foreigners (the YC&AC) in 1896 gave a huge boost to the sport of baseball, the game’s organizers decided to ask the YC&AC rugby section to provide the opposition. There must surely have been some debate within the YC&AC about the wisdom of participating in a high profile match when few of their players had ever played the game before. There would have been not a few wise old YC&AC members who remembered the crushing defeat of the YC&AC baseball players by Ichiko. Surely a similar public humiliation might be in stock for the rugby section.
The Japan Times article on the game states that most of the Japanese collegiate team players were actually American citizens of Japanese ancestry who had ‘played this greatest of American sports back in their homeland’ and it is not clear whether the YC&AC players were aware of this when they lined up at the start of the game wearing their blue and white jerseys – the Japanese team wore ‘red and white sweat shirts’ – in front of the main stand. I assume that the ‘Meiji Shrine grounds’ is the same as Meiji Jingu Stadium.
The Japanese college students won 26 – 0 and the summary of the match at the beginning of the article said ‘Through sheer speed and a greater knowledge of the fundamentals, such as blocking and charging, the lighter Tokyo All-College eleven defeated the much heavier Yokohama Country and Athletic Club’s team.’ They scored one touchdown in the first quarter, another in the second quarter and two in the final quarter which shows that the YC&AC team put up a great performance. YC&AC managed to get a total of five first downs – three in the second quarter and one each in the third and fourth quarters, against 12 by the collegians.
The Japan Times’ writer praised the non-Japanese team with the following words: ‘Too much credit cannot be given to the YCAC (Yokohama Country and Athletic Club) players, many of who were having their first taste of American football, for their splendid fight they put up against the younger but more experienced collegians. The game was much closer than the score suggests.’ He noted that the collegiate team’s coach, professor George H. Marshall from Rikkyo University, was forced to send his star linemen into the game in the second period when the YC&AC worked the ball up to the collegiate team’s 10-yard line and posed their only real threat to score in the whole game.
A bad punt by a collegiate player gave Yokohama the ball on their opponents’ 30-yard line and write described the YC&AC attack as follows: ‘Two-hundred pounder F. R. Devin gained 9 yards through the line and Zuber also smashed through the collegians’ front wall for first down Harris netted 5 yards on a line play and Zuber followed with a big gain but the play was called back when Y.C.A.C. was offside. Zuber again hit the line and found a big hole, gaining 9 yards. Harriss made one yard for a first down on the collegians’ 14-yard line. Merrill fumbled and Zuber recovered for a 5-yard loss. Zuber then tried to smash through the line but was stopped. Merrill’s pass to Zuber over the goal line failed and the Y.C.A.C. threat was eliminated.’
Zuber was clearly the YC&AC’s best player on attack but there was weakness in the fullback’s play that the newspaper identified as YC&AC’s biggest weakness as the aspect of the game they should have been able to apply their rugby knowhow more successfully: ‘The Y.C. & A.C. players fumbled just a bit too often and the squad was weak in the punting game which should have been its greatest factor in defense. Zuber’s punt seldom traveled over 30 yards from the line of scrimmage. More often, the ball was booted out of bounds with little yardage.’
In the third period, the collegiates failed to score any points with Zuber and Walter Tesch playing a ‘bang up defensive game.’ Tesch was the outstanding linesman for the YC&AC, ‘breaking through time and time again to stop the ball carrier.’ At one point Zuber ‘once virtually carried half of the collegians’ linemen on his back, plowing his way through for a 9 yard gain.’
The 1934 game was not just a one-off game but part of a grand plan to quickly make American Football a major sport in Japan. Soon after the game several universities formed teams and a league was formed which the YC&AC joined, resulting the sport being played several times on the Yaguchidai ground in early 1935. Meiji beat Waseda in their first ever match in December 1934. And then, on January 13 1935, they beat Waseda 19 – 0 in a match at Koshien stadium designed to encourage universities in Kansai to adopt the sport. Sponsored by the Osaka Mainichi newspaper, the opening ceremonies were even more spectacular than those at the game in Tokyo: there was a 26-piece orchestra and monoplane flew low over the gridiron and dropped, right on the 20-yard line, a football decorated with blue and red ribbons that had a package tied to it which contained a message from Ambassador Grew. 10,000 watch the game of which a highlight was a dazzling 33-yard sidestepping run and touchdown by the Meiji rugby team captain!
YC&AC team starting members:
Wasson (?) (Center), Chevalerie (Guard), Schoene (Guard), Figgess (Tackle), Down (Tackle), F. Weissblatt (End), Hecach (?) (End), J. F. Harriss (Quarterback), F. R. Devin (Halfback), F. R. Harriss (Halfback), Zuber (Fullback).
Other YC&AC players who played: Merrill, A. Morelli, Walter Tesch, and J. Crocker.

  • JAFA: Japan American Football Association
    ? means exact spelling is not clear or might be incorrect!
    Poor copy of Japan Time’s photos = I have asked JAFA to send me any photos they have – should get answer today sometime hopefully.
    1954 Rice Bowl program cover and ticket (from author’s collection):
    Ticket and cover of program for the 1954 Rice Bowl east-west Japan games played at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. The cover indicates that events started with east –west high school representative teams playing touch football, followed by the main Japanese east-west collegiate game with the final match being between US east-west teams. Today JAFA has 421 registered teams including 210 college teams and 115 high school teams. Moreover, JAFA states that the national team has been for a long time the second strongest in the world after the US.

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