NAVAL AIR FACILITY ATSUGI, Japan — While the Tomodachi Bowl is a competitive football game, it also resonates as a cultural experience and a lifelong memory for the Americans and Japanese who go head to head the second Sunday of each March.
It also honors the partnership between American and Japanese militaries. They bonded eight years ago in the wake of the March 11, 2011, Great Tohoku Earthquake and resulting tsunami, to help rebuild portions of northeastern Japan devastated by the disaster.
“Nations have allies. People have friends,” said Fred Bales, football coach at Kubasaki High School at Camp Foster, Okinawa, and defensive coordinator for Team USA in Sunday’s 23-3 win over Team Rising Sun.
“This is about life education. It’s athletic, yes, but it’s cultural and it’s educational,” he said. “They go on the field and they speak a common language … the language of football. It’s well understood by both groups of guys. It immediately forges a lifetime bond.”
Aside from that bond, there’s the prestige that goes with being selected to be among the 45 who played for Team USA on Sunday, said Tomodachi Bowl co-founder Tim Pujol, head football coach at Yokota High School in western Tokyo.
“When the time comes that you’re telling your grandkids about the time that you were in an American football all-star game in Tokyo, Japan, that in and of itself is pretty intriguing,” he said.
From the time the American players arrived from around the Pacific for the first practice Friday at Atsugi’s Reid Memorial Stadium – site of Sunday’s game – Pujol said he imparted on them the significance of the name “tomodachi,” which means “friend” in Japanese.
“And we’re here now, sharing a love for the game of football that’s been so important to the Japanese since the 1930s and for us even longer, and for the partnership we’ve had with the entire international coalition in the aftermath of the Tohoku quake.”
Sunday’s matchup was the eighth renewal of a game that began in March 2010 as the Camellia Bowl, played at Kawasaki Stadium. Former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and then-U.S. ambassador to Japan John Roos were instrumental in getting it off the ground.
Team USA, comprised mostly of high school student-athletes from the three Department of Defense Education Activity schools in the Tokyo area, routed Team Rising Sun — a collection of Japanese high school players — 61-0 on March 18, 2010, and plans were laid to play again the following year.
That got canceled due to the earthquake the day before. The game was then renamed Tomodachi Bowl in honor of the partnership and the military operation to restore northeast Japan.
Since then, the matchup has been played on U.S. bases four times and at Amino Vital Stadium in Tokyo’s western suburbs four times, mostly to overflow crowds at fields nominally suited to seat 2,000 or so spectators.
As the number of spectators has increased, so too has the number of schools sending players to Team USA and Team Rising Sun. This year, 10 DODEA Pacific schools in Japan, Okinawa, Korea and Guam sent players for Team USA. They practiced twice, from 4 to 7:30 p.m. on Friday and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
This year’s Japanese team featured senior high school players and first-year college players from around the Tokyo area; they practiced for six weekends leading up to the matchup.
Sunday served as a daylong celebration of football, first featuring flag-football games involving base youth from Atsugi and Camp Zama. Zama American High School athletics director Aaron Wells coached one of the teams — the Zama Dragonbolts — which lost to its Japanese counterparts.
“It was pretty interesting,” said 11-year-old Dragonbolt Rebecca Tremel. “Our season was over, so I was pretty excited to play one more week” against a Japanese team for the first time.
There were plenty of eats and beverages to be had at Reid’s west corner, where various base organizations sold everything from burgers to Mexican food.
Pomp and pageantry preceded the main game, with NAF Atsugi commander Capt. Lloyd Mack and Aso presiding over pre-game ceremonies, which featured a Navy color guard and a 7th Fleet Band combo from Yokosuka Naval Base. Aso made the pre-game coin toss.
Mack had seen the Tomodachi Bowl last March 11 at Amino Vital Stadium and expressed interest then in hosting the game this year.
“I learned that they’d done it here before and wanted another opportunity to get the communities together and learn from one another,” he said. “The Super Bowl is done. One last shot for us to see some football.”
There was plenty of camaraderie after the game. An awards ceremony preceded a mass group photograph of players and coaches from both teams, along with the ubiquitous selfies.
As the masses parted and made their way home, some who witnessed the Tomodachi Bowl for the first time talked of the experience.
“It was amazing,” said Tech Sgt. Joe Stroud, a 2003 Yokota High graduate who is assigned to Camp Zama. “I wish this had been around when I was in high school. Just shows how football is becoming more popular over the years in Japan.”