Organized American football was introduced into Japan in 1934 by Paul Rusch, an American missionary who was teaching at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and formed a team at the school. The first-ever game was played in November that year at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium, drawing a crowd of 15,000, despite being held on a weekday.
Rusch left the country during World War II, when football and other American sports were abandoned, but returned in the 1950s and helped spread the game. Rusch is referred to as the "Father of American Football in Japan" and for his efforts, the MVP trophy of the national championship Rice Bowl is named in his honor.
The national collegiate championship, called the Koshien Bowl, was started in 1947, pitting the top teams in the Kanto (east) and Kansai (west) regions. It's name comes from site of the game, Koshien Stadium, one of Japan's most tradition-rich baseball stadiums located between Osaka and Kobe.
Club teams began forming in the late 1950s and the first company-sponsored team, Mitsubishi Jushi, was founded in 1961. More companies became involved and in 1971, the Japan Shakaijin American Football League was formed. ("Shakaijin" refers to a member of society, i.e., one who is no longer in school.)
The league continued to evolve and in 1996 was reorganized as the X-League, officially the highest league under the umbrella of the national governing body in the sport, the Japan American Football Association. As one of the original top-tier members, the Seagulls have been the X-League's most successful team over the two decades with eight championships, including a record four in a row from 2010 to 2013.
The first high school championship was played in 1970, and later became officially known as the Christmas Bowl.
As of 2015, there were 421 teams throughout the nation registered with the Japan American Football Association. The largest segment is college teams with 210, while 115 high schools play the sport. There are 23 middle high school teams and 21 in elementary schools. The X-League has 52 teams. A number of women's teams play flag football, although there are two tackle-football teams.
The NFL has a strong following in Japan, where preseason games as part of the NFL American Bowl series were played almost annually from 1989 to 2005. There was also an annual college football game (first called the Mirage Bowl, then the Coca-Cola Bowl), which pitted top teams from 1977 to 1993. Barry Sanders rushed for over 300 yards for Oklahoma State in 1988, and the 716 yards that Houston's David Klinger threw for in a 62-45 win over Arizona State at Tokyo Dome in 1990 stood as an NCAA record until 2014.
The national championship Rice Bowl
Starting with the 1983 season, Japan inaugurated a national championship, with the corporate league and collegiate champions pitted against each other in the Rice Bowl. Up to then, the Rice Bowl, which started in 1948 through Rusch's efforts, had been a clash between college all-stars teams from the Kanto and Kansai regions.
In 1985, the league's current tiered format was launched with the formation of the Japan Shakaijin American Football Association, which is now the Japan American Football Association, the present national governing body of the sport. Seven teams made up the first division, of which only the Panasonic Impulse (then called Matsushita Denko) currently remains.
In 1996, the league was reorganized as the X-League with the top tier revamped into 18 teams split into three divisions--two in the Kanto region and one in the Kansai region. A six-team playoff, along with a relegation-promotion playoff enabling teams to move up from the second tier, was adopted. The format was revised in 2009 to include a second stage leading up to a four-team playoff.
The calculation of league titles begins with the 1987 season, when the American Football Japan Shakaijin Championship was launched. The next year, the game was renamed the Tokyo Super Bowl and moved to Tokyo Dome. Since 2003, it has been called the Japan X Bowl and, in principle, is played at Tokyo Dome.