"The Japanese have a way with American games that is all too scrutable: they are very good at them. They took over baseball as though it were a colony and they go at American-style football with a zeal that might be considered excessive at Notre Dame. Football is played at 19 Japanese colleges. The players may lack the beef of U.S. collegians but they make up for it in style and—it is the only word—ceremony.
An important part of the missionary work for football in Japan was done by an American teacher named Donald T. Oakes. It still surprises him, for that was not the kind of missionary he set out to be. He is now the principal of a private school in Lenox, Mass. In 1949, shortly after graduation from the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass., he went to Japan. Within a few months he found himself the most celebrated football coach in the country.
In some three years his teams at St. Paul's University in Tokyo won 34 games, lost three and tied one. Oakes was delighted and baffled. He was no ace: during his own football career at Dartmouth he played in only one spring game, as a dropkicker, of all things, and never even got a letter. The newly graduated Mr. Oakes had signed on for a teaching tour at St. Paul's, which was founded by the American Episcopal Church early this century, although it is now independent. He was supposed to teach American history and be assistant baseball coach. He grew up in Teaneck, N.J. and had once played semipro baseball in neighboring Tenafly.
But the school had no need for a baseball coach. Oakes recalls: "They had a staff of Japanese coaches who knew more about the sport than I ever would. So I withdrew from baseball with their very polite acceptance, and prepared to devote myself entirely to teaching."
One day, a month after he arrived, a group of about 15 students knocked on his door. Two boys, Niseis from America's Far West who had been stranded by the war while visiting in Japan and who spoke fluent English, informed Oakes that this was the St. Paul's football team and that they would be most honored if he would be their coach.
"But I don't know anything about football," Oakes protested. "I just know how to dropkick a little."
"Oh that's all right," they told him. "No matter how little football you know, you know more about it than we do."
American football had been started in Japan on the campus of St. Paul's in the early '30s by a teacher named Paul Rusch, who is reputed to be one of the models for the title character of the bestseller, The Ugly American. (The Ugly American is really quite a nice fellow in the book, a sort of good example for Yanks abroad.) The game caught on, and before long several colleges had teams. St. Paul's—its Japanese name is Rikkyo University, which translates as "The University of Upright Education"—was in a league called the Roku-Daigaku, a rough equivalent of our Ivy League.
With World War II all things that smacked of America were suppressed, except baseball, which was too popular. But as soon as the war was over, the alumni of the various universities wanted football again. The St. Paul's team, aided by its alumni, cleared and leveled a field with picks and shovels. They filled in bomb holes and cleared rubble. Their equipment was prewar stuff that had been hidden away in closets. The old leather helmets were so soft you could push your fingers into them. No one had any hip pads, and only three members of the squad had football shoes; the rest played in sneakers.
Oakes figured that anyone who wanted to play football that much deserved what little help he could give them. He wrote to a friend in the States to send him some books on how to be a football coach and plunged ahead. For the two games remaining in the season he let the team continue with the formations it had been using, which were as antiquated as the equipment.