Rice Bowl winner Tsubasa Takagi proves Japanese QBs not a thing of the X League past

It was last January, in the aftermath of the Fujitsu Frontiers first Japan X Bowl loss in five years, that a decision was made to shift the trajectory of the franchise.

After building a dynasty on the backs of two superstar American quarterbacks, first Colby Cameron and then Michael Birdsong, the team would take a different tack in 2021. Instead of finding another Division 1 standout to carry the team forward, coaches called Japanese backup Tsubasa Takagi into their office and handed him the keys to the X League’s biggest powerhouse. If they were to return to the mountaintop, it would be the home-grown talent who would take them there.

“My motivation was that this moment has come and that I want to prove that the coach’s decision is right,” Takagi recalls of the meeting almost a year ago. “I’m ready.”

In the aftermath of the Frontiers 24-18 Rice Bowl victory over the Panasonic Impulse, there can be little debate that Takagi has delivered on that promise. Fujitsu is once again at the top of Japanese football and it was large part because of their homegrown quarterback, not despite him.

In eight games this season, Takagi was 140-of-220 passing for 1,761 yards and 14 touchdowns. He tossed just two interceptions in that span, remarkable efficiency that is point of pride for the quarterback, offering a gentle but firm correction when this interviewer erroneously credited him with a third turnover.

“Actually, I want it to be at zero,” he laughed, his grin hardly hiding the seriousness of that statement clear in his eyes.

Photo: Megumi Sugita

It was a glimpse at the competitive fire which has made Takagi a rare exception to the trend of American quarterbacks in Japanese football. While it was once commonplace for local passers to lead their teams to the title, over the past decade, the gross majority of teams in the top league have shifted to imports at the position. Takagi was the last Japanese quarterback to win the league title in 2019 when he was forced into action to replace an injured Michael Birdsong, but many felt that a start-to-finish Japanese starter winning the title had become a thing of the past. The Frontiers have proven that false, a monumental achievement for Japanese football as a whole.

“Sometimes I talk to college students and ask are you gonna play for the X League. Most quarterbacks say maybe no, because American quarterbacks are so special,” Takagi admits. “With not only this win, but also keeping ready for the title next year and the future, I prove that Japanese quarterbacks can do it. I’m happy that college student could watch this year’s game, this year’s Fujitsu Frontiers.”

What they saw was Takagi take control of the game, finishing 17-of-26 for 220 yards and a touchdown through the air, while scampering for two on the ground. It was there that his drive to win was clearest, lowering the shoulder of his 6’0, 200 pound frame to punch in the eventual game-winning score. Takagi simply would not be denied, in many ways channeling the spirit of his power running predecessor Michael Birdsong.

“Yes, of course,” Takagi chuckled at the comparison. “He’s as powerful a runner as I’ve ever seen from a quarterback. When I was playing with him, I thought only Michael Birdsong could do something like that. I’m happy. Maybe I learned from him, just watching, and now I can do it.”

Fujitsu QB Tsubasa Takagi and coach Greg Gregory

Takagi learned more than that from Birdsong and from Colby Cameron before him, but he credits the biggest factor in his success to quarterback coach Greg Gregory. Before Gregory assumed that role in 2019, Takagi had never had a positional coach. He believes Gregory’s impact has been incalculable, not just for him but for the future of Japanese quarterbacking.

“I spent seven years as a student player and there was good coaches, but I had never met quarterback specific coach ever,” Takagi explained.

“He helped me a lot. Maybe not only me, but he helped make is so a Japanese quarterback could win the championship. He grew me up.”

The respect is more than mutual, as Gregory was key in the decision to entrust Takagi with the Fujitsu offense and has nothing but praise for the quarterback.

“Takagi is an amazing student of the game – a meticulous note taker in meetings, a tireless worker on the practice field, has great game day awareness (meaning he can accurately tell you what is happening on the field), extremely smart and is a tough, fierce competitor,” Gregory said. “He has a burning passion to be the best player he can be!”

Without that unique passion, Takagi may not have been able to break through the glass ceiling of X League quarterbacking. It took years of dedicated work, balancing his full-time job in human resources and humbly learning from those around him. He fully admits that Japanese and American quarterbacks enter the league with different experiences, but it will never be insurmountable.

“Japanese college quarterbacks and American import quarterbacks come from a different level. Japanese college quarterbacks have to have the mind to be a great quarterback or to overcome the American quarterback, to keep working hard for years and years, day by day, years and years,” Takagi says. “If they have that motivation, like I did, everyone can do it.”

Even with a Rice Bowl championship as a starter now under his belt, Takagi hasn’t lost any motivation. This year was just the beginning of what will hopefully be Fujitsu’s next era of dominance.

“I’m am 29 years old and have spent six years at Fujitsu, but now I feel like I’m a rookie,” Takagi says. “This will be my second year, so I am very eager to grow up and play even better.”

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.