Each year, the International Bowl features fierce competition. Make no bones about it. U.S. National Teams and international foes alike come to Texas with one goal in mind: to earn a win for their country at AT&T Stadium.
However, despite the competitive nature on display all week long, the International Bowl also marks a celebration of the game of football. And perhaps nowhere is that celebration more apparent than with Team Japan.
A little after 8 a.m. Sunday morning, Team Japan’s roster of 40 touched down in Texas to begin their preparation for International Bowl X. By 11 a.m., they were already in meetings with their coaches in advance of their first team practice. But these coaches didn’t make the long trip with them, and that’s because for the second year in a row, coaches from Oklahoma Baptist University are leading Team Japan.
“It’s such a great experience to be with these young men who’ve come a long, long way to be here to participate in International Bowl,” said Oklahoma Baptist and Team Japan offensive coordinator Grant Gower. “It’s a great experience for us as coaches to have that opportunity as well to grow ourselves.”
The innate question for many is how the coaches from Shawnee, Okla. coach and communicate with a group of kids that have little experience speaking English. According to the head translating coach of Team Japan Yorihihsa Sekiguchi, who simply goes by Yori, only one player speaks English well enough to consistently communicate.
To overcome the language barrier, Gower says his staff relies on interpreters like Yori to get their message across as well as a mix of hand signals. Yori on the other hand, is quick to deflect Gower’s praise and credits the kids themselves.
With a grin on his face he explains:
“The first practice, I translated most of it. But the kids pick up the words, so maybe they don’t need me.”
Though intriguing for most, their methods should go unquestioned as last year’s 21-6 International Bowl victory over the U.S. speaks for itself. The use of U.S. coaches serves the players just as much as the Japanese high school and college coaches that also made the trip.
“For me, the coaches coming here to understand and pick up information from the Baptist coaches is good for them and I,” says Yori, who serves as the head football coach at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo. “Player wise, playing against Americans is special and it’s a once in a lifetime experience for them to be playing at AT&T Stadium.”
Another question that begs an answer is how the Japanese players and coaches alike were introduced to football, which isn’t regarded as a popular sport on the island but might be more popular than one might think. According to Yori, there’s about 120 high schools playing football in Japan.
For some kids, it’s watching NFL and college games on TV. The internet also plays a role in getting these kids absorbed into the game. For others, like offensive lineman Riku Kasuga, it came from watching older family members play growing up.
“My dad played football in Japan in a semi-pro league and I used to go to his games to watch him play when I was little,” said Kasuga, who’s playing in his first International Bowl.
Kasuga is an outlier on the Japanese roster. He was born and grew up in Japan but moved to the States during his sophomore year of high school and currently calls St. Louis, Mo. home. He’s set to graduate from Chaminade College Prep in the spring with the hopes of receiving an offer to play college football.
Though he brings experience of playing in the U.S., Kasuga is most excited to be representing his home country and sharing the experience with his teammates.
“I’ve played against U.S. guys before because I live in St. Louis, but for the rest of the guys, it’s their first experience playing against the U.S., so I’m really excited for them,” said Kasuga, who’s favorite NFL team and player is the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees. “Because I live here, I’m also excited to be playing with these guys. Playing Japanese football is a lot of fun.”
Team Japan squares off with the U.S. U-17 National Team on Friday at 1 p.m. CT. Despite last year’s success, this year’s roster is mostly new faces, featuring only four returning players from a year ago. The sell to be a part of this year’s team was made easy last year’s experience. The possibility of getting a win inside AT&T Stadium while getting to enjoy all the game of football offers for a week in the United States. Sounds like some celebration to me.