When discussing sport with a Japanese colleague, and remarking that in 2000 the visit of the Wallabies had attracted the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, to an Australian Embassy reception, I mentioned that I followed another game, Australian Football.
After a moment’s uncertainty about what the game was he remarked ‘Ah Aussieball…a barbarian game’.
In his ‘40s, he might have recalled the marketing of the Yokohama Stadium ‘Aussie Bowl’ match of 1986, between Hawthorn and Carlton, as one characterised by primal violence, appealing to an alleged Japanese love of physicality. While slightly more restrained than the Vancouver marketing which had John Ironmonger eating raw meat on a city footpath for the cameras, the McKay promotion was an early global marketing disaster. It sold violence as it did in LA and London in 1987, that year of football’s international folly, something that would have more long-term ramifications than the international stock market crash around the same time.
Picking up the language in the media releases, the Age reported, on the 2nd of October 1986: ‘Japan prepares to import Australia’s men of steel’. ‘It is being billed as the roughest game in the world’, the piece opened, ‘a ball game closest to the origins of all ball games; an expression of a primal and violent urge.’ ‘The world’s toughest ball game’ said the pre-match publicity. ‘It is a drama where men with steel bodies and who are over two metres high and weigh more than 100 kilograms will fight: that’s Australian football.’ Was this an Australian publicist who had seen too many martial arts films or a Japanese or Australian publicist who had some image of mobile sumo wrestling or of large athletes doing kick boxing in an outdoors arena? More positively, almost, the players would ‘run, jump, kick and crash in an oval in Yokohama stadium’. One sports commentator, Ichiro Furudate, said that it was like the arrival of St Francis Xavier in the 16th century. “Had Australian football arrived here then, the Edo government would have banned it. I fear that this sport might make one or two other ball games in Japan disappear.”
The crowd was lured on the prospect of violence and was, it seemed, disappointed as a reported 25,000 were silent, particularly during the first half. According to the report, without a team to support the Japanese ‘lack[ed] a context in which to be spontaneous’. One spectator complained that the game was not violent enough: ‘It’s not as exciting as the propaganda for the game said it would be.’ When one tussle between players failed to develop into blood-letting the announcer at the game, Furudate, exclaimed that ‘Oh! I wish they had fought a little longer.’ (Age, 4.11.1986, Simon Holberton). Neither the $20,000 purse for the winner (Hawthorn beat Carlton) or the car for the best player (Robert DiPierdomenico) nor the nonstop commentary of Furudate, with jokes, or the small field and poorly bouncing Astroturf guaranteed a great game or great tackling. It was feared that the Aussie Bowl would not continue, although Fuji Television was interested in continuing its sponsorship. Despite these rumours, the Aussie Bowl was repeated the next year (1987) with Hawthorn returning against a new foe -Essendon! “
Speaking to Dipper at the second International Cup match played in South Melbourne in 2005, I asked him about the experience. He said that when the commentator came into the rooms and told them before the match to go out and attack the opposition, he asked, nervously, ‘Did you tell Carlton the same thing?’
Yet, despite that the game left a legacy. The student teams who played the curtain-raiser were part of the formation of footy in Tokyo in the late 1980s. Alan Jeans, premiership-winning St Kilda and Hawthorn coach, talked to the Japanese team informally in the rooms at the first International Cup; wearing another hat he awarded the best player of the tournament honour to Michito Sakaki who later went on to do pre-season training with Essendon. A decade and more after the second match, Essendon’s long-standing coach Kevin Sheedy sent the players to Japan to see how they coped with a few days in a foreign culture. Now, in 2010, a Japanese Australian dual parentage player Sean Yoshiura, is an international player on the rookie list at the Brisbane Lions.
Steve Alomes is a professor at Deakin University in History and when he was on sabbatical at Tokyo University he was a regular at Goannas games. The Tokyo Goannas would like to thank Steve for this article and we are very lucky to have him as our club historian.