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Japan And America Celebrate Their Cultures Through A Football Game In Southern Oregon

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Roman Battaglia / JPR News
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There are many differences between Japanese and American culture, but both countries love American football.  One way these countries celebrate their love of the sport is the Pacific Rim Bowl, whose motto is "More than just a game."

The football field is alive with energy. The crowds are cheering, but here, it’s in both Japanese and English. Who knew American football was so big in Japan? Turns out there are more teams in Japan’s highest league than in the NFL. Atsu Hamada is a vice-chairman of the Pacific Rim Bowl. He told me that football arrived in Japan in the 1930’s, before World War II.

“So some American guys introduced American Football in the college or high school so we started playing football.”

The sport grew immensely during the occupation after World War II, when American soldiers played football in Japan. The Pacific Rim Bowl has since sought to celebrate the shared culture between Japan and America through a week of events culminating in the matchup between the Ashland Grizzlies and the Japanese All Stars. Every two years, one team will travel to the other’s country to compete. This year the game took place in the U.S. Charlie Hall is the former head coach of Ashland High School. He says the idea for the game was formed by accident when a football team from Kwansei Gakuin University came to play against Southern Oregon University in 1986.

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Credit Roman Battaglia / JPR News
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“Akira Furukawa took a walk down the street and ran into Jim Nagel at Ashland High School. And there, that communication, that dream, that concept of bringing high school boys together to play American football was the start of the Pacific Rim Bowl,” Hall said.

That connection brought the first team from America to Osaka, Japan in 1988. The series is now in its 31st year. DeMario Watson is a senior at Ashland High School and a running back and linebacker for the Grizzlies. He explained to me how the Pacific Rim Bowl earned its motto, "More than just a game."

“That unity, togetherness even though you’re going there to play a game," he said. "Since you have a week to just like do everything with them and you’re practicing with them and you’re going to, like I got to go to the festival of lights. So we have BBQ’s and we’re doing the peace ceremony. It brings us together like we’ve known each other our whole lives.”

Both teams stay with host families in the country they visit and get to know how their opponents live. Through practice and events planned throughout the week, the teams learn more about each other’s culture. Antoine Perry is an assistant football coach and the offense coordinator for the Grizzlies. He says the Pacific Rim Bowl isn’t about just the score on the scoreboard.

“The one thing I think people lose track of in high school sports is they get caught up in the winning and losing of it,” he says. “I mean yes, it’s important but it’s still, you’re developing young men, you’re developing them to appreciate things in life it’s not just the winning and losing.”

A Japanese player stands at the sidelines of the football game.
Credit Roman Battaglia / JPR News
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A Japanese player stands at the sidelines of the football game.

But this year, the game plans were interrupted by an increasingly common occurrence in Southern Oregon summers: wildfire smoke. After the Milepost 97 fire broke out causing a thick layer of smoke to descend into the Rouge Valley. That forced the group to find a new location for the game. The closest football field with fresh air and open during the summer was on the Oregon coast. So the next day, everybody packed up and headed out to North Bend High school.

I was interested if there’s a difference between the play style of Japanese and American teams. Charlie Hall told me they’re actually very similar.

“We don’t see a primitive brand of football, you know. It’s very state of the art, it’s very sophisticated, there’s a lot of decision making. We’re not having to prepare any differently when we play a Japanese High School team when I was there an it’s no different now.”

And it seems that the Japanese play style worked out for the All Stars. The team won 48 to 16 over the Grizzlies. Current head coach Beau Lehnerz says despite the teams’ loss, the players learned the value in overcoming obstacles.

Ashland Head Coach Beau Lehnerz stands at the sidelines communicating with the other coaches
Credit Roman Battaglia / JPR News
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Ashland Head Coach Beau Lehnerz stands at the sidelines communicating with the other coaches

“We had a game scheduled for yesterday, we changed it to here. I like that, in that it forces us to deal with adversity. This is gonna be a lesson for the season. Not everything’s gonna go smooth, thing’s aren’t gonna go our way, how are we gonna react to that.”

Both the players and the coaches say they keep in touch with each other regularly on social media. They also told me there should be more programs like the Pacific Rim Bowl in high school sports. They say the addition of a cultural experience gives players a broader understanding of the world and helps them not only in sports, but throughout their whole lives.