Time-honored sporting events during the New Year’s holidays that come to mind include the long-distance ekiden relay races as well as soccer and rugby matches, but the Rice Bowl, the national championship game for determining the best American football team in Japan, is also well-known.
The American Football Japan Championship Prudential Life Cup 76th Rice Bowl was held at Tokyo Dome on January 3rd. This matchup reemerged last year, showcased as the championship game for X-League, the top semi-professional American football league in Japan.
This year, the league expanded its post-season play. The six teams in each of the A and B divisions of X1 Super compete in their respective leagues, after which the top four in each division, a total of eight teams, move on to battle it out in the playoffs known as the Rice Bowl Tournament. The two teams that emerged victorious out of that grueling tournament and advanced to the Rice Bowl this year were the Fujitsu Frontiers and Panasonic Impulse, both of which won all games in their respective leagues. This is the second consecutive time these two have matched up in the championship game.
Will the Fujitsu Frontiers win back-to-back championships? Or will the Panasonic Impulse be able to bounce back? Just before the biggest game of the season, players on both teams appeared to be very relaxed. They had been meticulously preparing for the game. A closer look reveals social media posts of the players divided into several zones and warming up.
An American football team is comprised of 11 players, each position requiring its own particular expertise and different techniques. The team is basically divided into an offensive squad, defensive squad, and kicking squad. On each squad, players are arranged into separate positions, in which they play different roles.
For example, the kicker on the kicking squad will come in at special times to kick the ball off at the start of the game as well as to punt when it’s time or kick a field goal. Eitaro Saeki of the Panasonic Impulse was conscientiously practicing his kicking before the game. This is an example of how a player whose specialty is kicking practices his skills.
Another social media post showed Jaboree Williams, a linebacker and the defensive playmaker, smiling and relaxing during the team’s stretching.
Social media posts also showed the Fujitsu Frontiers’ offensive squad practicing their footwork to shake off the defense so they can get open for a pass. One of the enjoyable things about sitting in the stands and watching the game is that you have the chance to see players getting ready before the match.
As it got closer to game time, the players started to show more determination, bracing themselves for the game. Defensive lineman Masao Uda and defensive back Keisuke Hayashi, both keys to Fujitsu Frontiers’ ironclad defense, grew more focused as they felt the crowd getting more enthusiastic.
The Frontierettes, Fujitsu’s cheerleading squad, also focused their undivided attention on getting ready for the big game, not to be outdone by the players and staff. The team’s official mascot Fronty along with Reddy, official mascot of the Fujitsu Red Wave, the Women’s Japan Basketball League team, were dressed in festive costumes ready for the game to begin.
Every minute brought the kickoff closer. Soon, the pre-game ceremony started. Standing in the corridors, the players were getting fired up before their spectacular introduction! As the announcer called them one by one, they energetically ran out onto the field as the crowd burst into applause.
It is hoped that this kind of performance will also help the Rice Bowl quickly build into a show similar to the NFL Super Bowl in the United States. The Rice Bowl will surely gain even more viewers as it evolves into an event where fans in Japan experience a mood similar to the Super Bowl, the premier game in American football and the biggest sports event in the United States.
Stadium seats set off for Fujitsu Frontiers and Panasonic Impulse fans were packed. It was almost a full house. Players on Jr. Impulse, Panasonic Impulse’s touch football team, were also in the stands watching the heroic players they so admire.
Finally, it was time for the game to start!
As both teams gathered and raised their cries, energy in the stadium peaked.
Panasonic Impulse took control in the first quarter. In their first offensive series, the Impulse steadily moved into the opposing team’s territory and scored early with the first touchdown when running back Victor Jamal Mitchell ran the ball into the end zone! This gave the Impulse’s players and fans a reassuring boost right from the get-go!
In the second quarter right after the Frontiers missed a field goal, Victor Jamal Mitchell once again left the defense behind, running 75 yards for another touchdown! This put the Impulse up 14 to 0.
However, it was now time for the Frontiers to make their comeback!
Kicker Koji Nosho’s field goal gave the team three points and running back Trashaun Nixon ran 12 yards for a touchdown. With the extra point, the team added another seven points. Now it was the Frontiers’ fans who were livening up.
The first half ended with Impulse in the lead 14 to 10. A big round of applause arose from the spectators, celebrating this fierce tug-of-war between the two teams. This was a game worthy of deciding the best team in Japan.
As the players returned to their respective locker rooms, the festivities moved on to the halftime show, an essential part of any American football championship game. Every year, NFL Super Bowl halftime show artists and their performances are talked about around the world. News programs focus on how the 30-second advertisement slots cost around ¥700 million. The halftime show is a sports entertainment event well known in Japan, too.
This year’s Rice Bowl featured yama, an artist whose popularity has soared on social media! On a special stage set up on the field, he performed his signature songs “Haru wo tsugeru” and “Mahi” as well as “Shikisai,” the entertaining theme song from the popular TV animation SPY x FAMILY.
It was then time for the second half to begin with the Impulse full of energy, driving the start of the third quarter.
Quarterback Jaylon Henderson passed for a touchdown, quickly widening the lead to 11 points. It seemed Impulse would dominate the second half.
However, on their next drive, Frontiers’ running back Nixon shook off the defense to score a touchdown, bringing the score to 16 to 21.
Then, once again in the Frontiers’ next offensive series right before the goal line, quarterback Tsubasa Takagi passed to wide receiver Kokaji Kyohei for a touchdown, turning the score around to put the Frontiers in the lead. Cheers from the fans grew louder and the entire stadium was gripped with excitement as the game unfolded at a fast-moving pace.
Seeking to retake the lead in the fourth quarter, the Impulse boldly went on the offensive reaching the 20-yard line just before the goal line thanks to a kick return by Victor Jamal Mitchell as well as good running and skillful passing. However, it was the Frontiers who came up with the big play. Defensive back Takumi Takaoka intercepted an Impulse pass! After the game, Takaoka recounted how he was confident of today’s game, “So many times, I dreamt that we would be standing here on the winner’s podium.”
Takaoka’s interception instantly boosted the Frontiers. Later when Nixon scored his third touchdown run of the game, the Frontiers took an eight-point lead 29 to 21.
Even so, the Impulse didn’t let that get them down and doggedly maintained their desire to win. On offense with three minutes left, they steadily moved the ball down to the 18-yard line, hoping for a touchdown.
But, it was not to be. The Frontiers made another big play at this crucial juncture. When the Impulse’s quarterback Henderson attempted to pass to wide receiver Alfonso Onunwor, it was intercepted again by Frontiers defensive back Takaoka! This was the decisive play of the game.
The Frontiers defeated the Impulse in a very competitive game where they were behind by up to 14 points at one time. Two interceptions in the second half turned the game upside down, enabling the Frontiers to come from behind and win 29 to 21. It was their second consecutive spectacular Rice Bowl victory and the seventh time the team has stood in the spotlight as the number one team in Japan.
During a post-game interview, Frontiers Head Coach Yo Yamamoto commended the players, “It was a tough game, but the players did what they had to do and that resulted in the win.”
Trashaun Nixon, named MVP with 188 yards and three touchdowns, also spared no praise for his fellow teammates, “We were able to win thanks to everyone on the offensive line who did a great job. I am also exceptionally happy to be named Rice Bowl MVP, an honor that a player can only receive if his team wins (in contrast to the regular season MVP which he was named and would receive even if the Frontiers didn’t win the championship). I’m also glad we were able to win against the powerhouse Panasonic team, which also has many wonderful players from the United States.”
On his team losing by a narrow margin, Impulse Head Coach Nobuyoshi Araki spoke of rising to the challenge next season as he looked back on the game, “Fujitsu was strong. On offense, we weren’t able to convert on many plays and, on defense, we weren’t able to check the Frontiers and they scored. We have to really think about what we need to do to win.”
The Impulse players also expressed their gratitude to the fans for supporting them the whole year and pledged to recover from this setback next season.
Although the Fujitsu Frontiers’ win brings the 2022 X-League American football season to a close, another big event is still to come during this year’s American football season!
The Japan U.S. DREAM BOWL 2023 will be held on January 22, 2023. This is a contest between a team selected to represent Japan and a college team representing the United States.
It will be the first international American football game held in Japan in nine years and is set to take place at the National Stadium in Yoyogi, Tokyo, which was renovated for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The team selected to represent Japan this year will be the Japan All-Star Team, the strongest team ever put together with foreign players also playing for Japan! This team will face off against the Ivy League All-Star Team, whose players have been selected from eight prestigious private universities in the Northeast of the United States. The Ivy League is a member of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, which is on par with the NFL in terms of popularity. The Ivy League has produced many athletes who have gone on to play in the NFL as well as presidents and other notable figures.
MVP Nixon and the many other players who took part in the Rice Bowl from the Frontiers and Impulse teams will put on an exciting game.
Be sure to watch the Japan U.S. DREAM BOWL 2023 live to truly experience the thrill of American football, which we sought to introduce in this article on the Rice Bowl.
Journal-ONE will be closely following the Ivy League All-Star Team’s arrival in Japan. We will be reporting not just on the game, but a variety of other exchange activities between the team and people in Japan. Be sure to look for our next article!