TWENTY-ONE years ago I received a phone call in Tokyo from one of my bosses at the Sun News-Pictorial with what seemed a straightforward assignment.
Two Australian rules teams, Essendon and Hawthorn, were planning to play a promotional match in Yokohama. The newspaper had heard the organisers, Fuji TV, were going to hold a curtain-raiser involving Japanese players.
I was the local correspondent for the Sun-Pic, now the Herald Sun, so I called Fuji TV. Their idea was to put on a game between Keio and Waseda universities, the most distinguished of the nation’s 600 private universities. Sporting contests between them are like Oxford-Cambridge matches, so Fuji TV was sure they would get plenty of local attention.
“But can they play?” I asked the producer handling the match.
“Umm … no, not yet,” he said.
“Well, who will teach them?”
“Will you?” he asked.
His strategy for finding Aussie rules coaching talent was to ask the first person he came across with an Australian accent. Sadly for him, that was me.
I laughed and told him even though I was from Melbourne I could barely play the game, let alone teach it. Oddly enough my sport as a kid had been judo and my footy career peaked with two games warming the bench for the Parade College under-13Bs.
I promised that when they found some real coaches I would come along to training sessions as an assistant.
But the search for real coaches in Tokyo got nowhere, and a few weeks later I was politely told I was the head coach. In fact the only coach. For both teams.
My interpreter, Hiroshi Osedo, and I had lunch with the leader of the players, a madly enthusiastic Keio student named Takeo Iida. He spoke little English and I had no Japanese. Iida-san had been to Australia on an exchange visit and was intrigued by the game, although he had never played.
Some of the other volunteers had played soccer and a few had been on a rugby field, but Aussie rules was totally exotic. That novelty was the attraction, along with a chance to get on television, which they figured might help them with girls.
So we had a coach who could not coach, players who had never played and no common language to talk footy. How hard could it be to introduce a sport to a new country?
Hiroshi thought the whole thing was hilarious but promised to help, mainly in the hope of seeing me make an idiot of myself.
A correspondent’s life is too busy and unpredictable to take on regular sporting commitments but our match was only two months away. I assumed that after the game we could all forget footy and regain our Saturdays.
The VFL turned down my appeals for help because it was only interested in selling TV rights to the Japanese, not in getting them to play the game. The Australian embassy was also no help because it could see no trade advantage in having a bunch of kids playing our game, even though I pointed out these were elite universities and the students could one day be influential.
So my family sent me a coaching manual for teaching primary-school players and Hiroshi set to work translating terms such as torpedo punt. I found two Australian bankers who knew how to umpire and convinced a mate who could play the game to come over from Hong Kong for our first training session, a two-day camp at the base of Mount Fuji.
The first lesson began with 30-odd fit young guys sitting silently on the training pitch while I held up a mysterious object in my right hand and tried to sound authoritative.
“Kore wa football desu!” (“This is a football!”) Thirty faces nodded earnestly, absorbing this information with as much concentration as if I had just shown them a working model of a combustion engine.
Fancier things – kicking, hand-balling, the rules and the scoring system – had to wait until we spent hours showing them the quirky way an Aussie rules ball bounces.
They worked ferociously and lost a lot of skin on the grassless training pitch, but commitment and bonding were no problem. While Australian kids their age might be self-conscious in the showers, we shared a huge hot bath that first night, laughing and forming a chain to scrub each other’s backs with soap.
We slogged away every Saturday, scouring Tokyo’s outer suburbs for any open piece of ground, preferably with grass, where we could practise with the half-dozen balls provided by Fuji TV.
I was 26, only six or seven years older than the players, but at first they treated me like a middle-aged professor or sensei. I was dreadfully unfit and within a few weeks they were all better players than me, although I thought it would hurt morale to let them know quite how incompetent their coach was.
They put on a good show at Yokohama baseball stadium in front of about 15,000 people and a decent TV audience. In fact Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy and Hawthorn’s Alan Jeans seemed pleasantly surprised by their performance. They both remarked that our best player, Katsutoshi Ishibe, had real talent.
That was supposed to be the end of my lost Saturdays but something unexpected had happened. These guys had become my friends and by now I had learned it was hard for foreigners to make genuine friendships in Japan. I had found that bonds of friendship in Japan rely on sharing some defining link, such as working for the same company or coming from the same village or school, rather than simply meeting somebody and finding that you like them.
That makes Japanese society a series of tight social circles. And if people are always insiders or outsiders, then foreigners are the ultimate outsiders. More often than not, foreigners are treated as if they are more charming and interesting than they really are, but I was sick of always being treated as if I was special and different.
To have normal friendships I needed a circle or bond of my own, and I had stumbled into one with Aussie rules. I decided to keep at it.
For the next three years I would be dragged out of bed, exhausted and hung-over, for the long Saturday morning drive into the suburbs to lead training sessions or matches against teams of Australian bankers and language teachers. Somehow we even ended up with an Irish team made up of Gaelic football players who had been lured to Tokyo by the strong yen of the 1980s.
The local office of QBE Insurance donated money for jumpers and the Fitzroy Football Club sent some footballs. But that was the only help we received.
After the games my tiny apartment would be packed with players, beer and pizza. Their English improved to the extent that a few ended up with Australian accents. My Japanese got nowhere but I did pick up some loyal, solid mates.
Iida became a close friend and perhaps the strangest Aussie rules fanatic in the world. He had footy magazines shipped to Tokyo and would ring me in genuine distress to report things such as Paul Salmon hurting an ankle.
One Saturday morning when I was more tired and hung-over than usual, I was sitting in Tokyo traffic in a car packed with students, wondering why I was spending my time doing this, when the best rover in Japan, Akio Nakajima, leaned over from the back seat and turned on the cassette player.
Out blared the Coodabeen Champions. A car full of kids who could barely speak English began singing along with “I’m DiPierdomenico, all the way from head to toe…” When they also knew the words to the song Never Turn Right at Burke Road, Malvern (Or You’ll Be There All Day”), I just shook my head.
I left Japan at the end of 1990. On grand final day five years later, I had another of those “is this really happening?” moments. I had returned to Tokyo for Iida’s wedding at the Hotel Okura.
After his bride, Akiko, had changed from a kimono into a Western outfit, they entered the ballroom to the applause of 500 guests. The music then started up for the bridal waltz, sending my table of footy old boys into cheers but leaving me laughing. Never before had Up There, Cazaly featured in a traditional Japanese wedding.
The former ruck-rover sitting next to me had become an executive for one of Japan’s biggest trading companies, travelling the world buying wheat.
In fact, he confided with a guilty smile, he had switched tens of millions of dollars in contracts from Canada to Australia “because I like Australia”.
Over the next decade or so our contact dropped off into the occasional exchange of cards and I assumed the game had died out in Tokyo. Last year, though, I received an email asking me to come back for the end of season awards night to mark the 20th anniversary of the Japan AFL.
It was a wonderful trip, with lots of pub time catching up with my old players, soaking up news of their children and their careers with the pride of an uncle, even though our age difference had all but disappeared now we were all in our 40s.
Teams are now spread across Japan and sides tour Australia each year. Two Japanese footballers even play semi-professionally in Australia.
The awards night was in a swish Tokyo hotel with the ballroom full of black ties and elegant dresses befitting the Japanese version of Brownlow Medal night.
When it came time for the big award I had another of those “is this happening?” moments when I was called up to present the best and fairest player in the league with something I had only recently heard about.
I muttered something about friendship being the most important thing in the game, then handed out the eighth annual Peter Wilson Medal.
Sitting down in something of a daze, I was told a player named Michito Sakaki had won the medal twice and went on to train with Essendon. He played in the semi-professional Ovens and Murray Football League.
Charles Brownlow was a genuine player and talented administrator and he had a rather bigger impact on the game than me. But he made one mistake by dying a year before the Brownlow Medal was launched.
You should have stayed alive, Charles; these things are fun.