Father and founder: Paul Rusch and the creation of Japanese college football

 

In the wake of the Great Depression, there were many first-generation American students of Japanese descent attending college in Japan. At the time, Western culture was relatively popular in Tokyo, so even if those students, also known as Nisei, didn’t always grasp the subtleties of Japanese social rules, they and their Japanese counterparts could at least share the pleasures of dancing to American jazz, or watching Charlie Chaplain movies at the cinema. International tension between the Washington and Tokyo over Japan’s expansion into China began to change that. The influence of Western culture in Japan became the target of criticism, and as Americans were increasingly regarded with suspicion, so, too, were Nisei. In that sense, Nisei were in a cultural no-man’s land. They weren’t always well received in their native America, nor were they readily accepted in Japan. Rusch hoped football could give his Japanese American students a better social footing in the home of their ancestors, especially if it became a popular pastime.

The campaign to promote the sport began after Rusch heard of a pickup football game at Meiji University. The informal match, in which the participants wore no helmets or pads, involved Japanese American students of Meiji and Waseda universities. To Rusch, who had learned to think big, news of the game was an inspiration for his next grand scheme. If Nisei college students at other schools could be enticed onto the gridiron, he reasoned, perhaps his own students at Rikkyo University would also play.

At a meeting at his faculty apartment at Rikkyo University in September 1934, Rusch conjured a plan to promote Japanese college football. When confronted with the question of how to outfit two football teams with pads, helmets and uniforms, Rusch dismissed that concern with his usual devil-may-care optimism. He would find the money, he pledged. Rusch later became the first chairman of the board of the newly formed Tokyo Intercollegiate Football League, beginning his tenure with an ambitious plan to stage Japan’s first organized tackle football game on Thanksgiving Day. The game was slated for Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.

Rusch and his fellow organizers anticipated perhaps 5,000 fans for a Thursday afternoon game. To everyone’s surprise, an estimated 15,000 spectators turned out to witness the first organized exhibition of American football in Japan. Many Japanese, including Crown Prince Chichibu, had difficulty comprehending the bizarre spectacle they were witnessing, while Tokyo broadcasters covering the game bore the burden of describing the live action to a puzzled radio audience. The prince at least had the advantage of being seated next to Ambassador Joseph Grew, to whom Rusch had given the daunting task of explaining what was happening on the gridiron.

Twenty-five students from Waseda, Meiji and Rikkyo universities, mostly Nisei, made up the “home” team that faced the designated “visitors” – older British and American expatriates from the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club.  Tokyo’s first collegiate football effort ended with the students trouncing their occidental guests 26 to 0. Rusch had done his part to promote diplomatic good will, having brought together Ambassador Grew and Prince Chichibu despite a worsening international situation between Japan and the United States. In his remarks following the game, Grew hailed the “coming of football as another link in the growing chain of athletic amity between the United States and Japan.”

It was a good start, but maintaining that good will would become increasingly difficult. As America came under suspicion, so did American football. Rikkyo University President Charles Reifsnider was already upset by rumors that spies were operating a wireless radio on the roof of one prominent Episcopal institution, St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo. Soon after, the Japanese newspaper Kokumin Shimbun suggested Reifsnider, Rikkyo football coach George Marshall, and Paul Rusch, were all spying for the United States. Marshall, the article alleged, recorded and translated the body measurements of students, then sent them to America. The article neglected the fact that as coach, Marshall had to order football uniforms and equipment from U.S. suppliers. Rusch, meanwhile, was suspected for his trips abroad, in which he was said to “…come back to Japan without staying in America for long periods.” Of Rusch’s allegedly nefarious activities, the article stated: “This fact cannot stop making students at a sensitive age nervous.”  The newspaper articles reflected the tone of the times. Western culture and the institutions Rusch had worked so diligently to promote in Japan were falling out of favor as America and Japan drifted ominously toward military conflict.

University of Kentucky Press

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