The beginning of the league
Starting with Mitsubishi Jushi in 1961, companies began establishing and supporting teams and, in 1971, formed the Japan Shakaijin American Football League. ("Shakaijin" refers to a member of society, i.e., one who is no longer in school.) This was reorganized as the X-League in 1996. The Seagulls, then sponsored by Recruit, was among the original members.
Why was it called the 'X-League'? In choosing the name, the league wanted one that would reflect its objective of providing a high-level competition while nuturing productive members of society. The 'X' is meant to symbolize:
eXcellence eXpert eXciting
The mission of the league is to produce Expert players and teams who raise the level of the sport; provide Exciting players and teams who will appeal to more fans; and aspire to become an Excellent league that fosters the spread and development of American football in Japan.
The league is divided into four tiers, similar to the divisions in soccer leagues around the world. Top teams in the lower divisions can move up by winning playoffs against the bottom teams in the division above it.
The top tier consists of 18 teams and is divided into three divisions--East, Central and West--of six teams each. The East and Central divisions consist of teams in the Kanto region (east Japan, that includes Tokyo), while the West consists of teams from the Kansai region (west Japan, mainly Osaka).
The Seagulls has always been in the top tier since the launch of the X-League in 1996, and has never had a losing record in divisional play.
Season and playoff system
The regular season begins in September and runs through November. The playoffs are held in December, culminating in the Japan X Bowl for the league championship in late December, which draws a crowd up to 30,000.
The winner of the league advances to the Rice Bowl, where they will face the collegiate champion on Jan. 3 for the national championship.
A new format for the regular season will begin with the 2016 season, one that includes inter-divisional games for the first time to allow for more games among the top teams prior to the postseason. Each team will play three divisional opponents and three from the other divisions closest to their relative strength, based on the standings from the previous season.
The second stage will consist of the top six teams advancing directly to the Japan X Bowl tournament, and the next four teams being be paired off for games in mid-November, with the two winners advancing as wild cards.
The Japan X Bowl tournament (in essence, starting with a quarterfinal round), will run to early December, with the two finalists advancing to the Japan X Bowl in mid-December to determine the league champion.
Company and club teams
The league consists of two types of teams--company and club--and all of the players are amateurs. Noone is paid to play. The company team is directly "owned" by a company and, for the most part, the players are employees of that firm. The club teams are supported by a sponsor or sponsors, with the players not limited to being employees of those companies. In most cases, one major corporation is the main sponsor and the team takes that company's name.
The Seagulls, which won an unprecedented four straight league titles from 2010 to 2013, is an example of a club team, although it was originally a company team owned by Recruit. The past three decades have seen incredible turnover in the makeup of the league, reflecting the economic situation of the country. The Fujitsu Frontiers, who won their first-ever X-League title in 2014, are one of the few remaining company teams.
The late 1980s saw a large number of Japanese banks field teams. But in the wake of the bursting of the stock market and real estate bubbles, the banks gradually disbanded their teams and by 2001, none were left in the first division. Two former powerhouses sponsored by apparel firms, Renown and Onward, no longer have teams, casualties of the economic downturn in that industry.
In 2001, the X-League changed its rule banning foreign players, but limited them to two on each side of the ball. Also, those who have previously played professionally are still barred. As with the Japanese players, the foreigners are not paid to play, but are provided with jobs, either in the company that owns or sponsors the team or an affiliated firm. They have come from various college levels, including top division schools such as UCLA, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State, San Diego and Hawaii. Several have come from the Ivy League.
The first full-time player was defensive lineman George Heather, out of San Diego State, who played for the now-defunct Onward Skylarks. The first quarterback, Robert Sloan, played the next year for the Renown Rovers, another team that no longer exists. In 2004, Arizona wide receiver Brad Brennan of Fujitsu became the first American to make the All X-League team.
The Seagulls have long been at the forefront of teams adding foreign players to their rosters, and are among the teams that have had the most. No foreigner in Japan has stood out more than Seagulls defensive end Kevin Jackson (Hawaii), who was an All X-League team selection in his first 10 seasons in the league starting from 2005. He has also won the league MVP award.
Other Seagulls who have gone on to earn All X-League honors were center Frank Fernandez (Harvard), linebacker Karl Noa (Hawaii), offensive tackle Kai Maiava (UCLA) and defensive end B.J. Beatty (Colorado).