Tokyo Riot Squad Toughens Up through Football ; Police Department Team Claws Its Way Back into Top Tier of Japan's League

By Belson, Ken | International New York Times, June 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Tokyo Riot Squad Toughens Up through Football ; Police Department Team Claws Its Way Back into Top Tier of Japan's League


Belson, Ken, International New York Times


Through grit and determination, the Keishicho Eagles, a team made up of police officers, has played its way into the top tier of Japan's amateur league.

The members of the Tokyo Police Department's Ninth Riot Squad are professionals at containing demonstrations, foiling terrorists and preventing mayhem. On any given Sunday, they also make mayhem on the football field as the Keishicho Eagles.

One of the more curious teams in one of Japan's more obscure leagues, the Eagles are a longtime member of the X League, the top division of a four-tier amateur football league that has existed since 1971.

Unlike, say, the Asahi Soft Drink Challengers or the Tokyo Gas Creators, the Eagles lack a deep-pocketed corporate sponsor and instead rely on the Keishicho, or Metropolitan Police Department. And while other teams are made up of players who hold desk jobs during the week, the Eagles are the only team stocked entirely with civil servants, always on call and frequently transferred to new posts.

The Eagles are also all Japanese, so they have not added any of the former American college players who have helped the Obic Seagulls, the Fujitsu Frontiers and other teams.

Even with these handicaps, the Eagles have held their own. Their jobs keep them in good shape, and because they work together, they are more cohesive than teams made up of players from different companies.

Last season, the Eagles won the second division, or X2, beating the Taiyo Building Management Cranes in a one-game playoff, and earned promotion back to the X League's X1 division, which has 18 teams in three six-team regional divisions.

"We communicate well because we work and practice together," Chiharu Tanaka, the team's captain, said recently after the Eagles played the Hurricanes. "And because we do some kind of exercise every day, we are superior to other teams."

A Loyal Core

At first glance, American football might seem an odd fit, not just in Japan but with the Police Department, one of the more traditional organizations in the country. Playing fields are in short supply in densely packed cities like Tokyo and Osaka, and helmets, shoulder pads and other equipment are expensive.

Though Japanese follow sumo and, to a lesser degree, rugby, games of skill and speed like baseball and soccer are more popular.

Still, football, which was introduced by an American missionary in the 1930s, has a small but avid following. American soldiers and sailors stationed in Japan since the end of World War II have helped promote the game, and rooting for football has cachet with Japanese looking for something fresh and foreign.

The appeal of the N.F.L., which hosted preseason games in Tokyo until 2005, has also lifted the sport. Regular-season games and the Super Bowl are broadcast here. So is the X League championship, as well as the Rice Bowl, the annual showdown between the X League and collegiate champions.

Japanese may miss some of the nuances of the game, but they like football's balletic chess match, according to Riichiro Fukahori, the commissioner of the National Football Association, which runs the X League.

"It's difficult to understand the rules, but the Japanese like the strategy of the game," said Fukahori, who played linebacker for the Asahi Beer Silver Star in the 1990s.

Still, only about 20,000 Japanese play tackle football, about half of them in college. The numbers have remained consistent, but they are unlikely to grow much because of the country's declining birthrate. The game remains strongest in and around Tokyo and Osaka, which are home to the largest universities and companies. …

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