Ryuji Kashiwabara used to be called “God of the Mountain” when he starred in Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden from 2009 to 2012.
It was a valuable experience.
Nowadays, he uses his fame to build a bridge between two very different cultures — American football and otaku.
A collaboration of one of the most violent outdoor sports and activities usually done indoors.
“The essence of the survival game, shogi or chess, has some things in common with American football,” said Kashiwabara, who now works on the Fujitsu Frontiers football team’s staff, during a recent interview with The Japan Times. “There are games, cartoons or animation films that are based on those subcultures. It’s the same with American football. That (collaboration) would help further the understanding of the rules of football.”
On a sunny Saturday in September, more than two dozen fans of otaku culture were seen at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki, where the Frontiers were playing Tokyo Gas in an X League game. They had mainly come to attend an event hosted by the Frontiers that combined American football with a small subset of otaku culture.
The event was a collaboration between the X League club and Kotobukiya, a Tachikawa-based maker of figures based on characters from comics, video games, movies and other sources. Kashiwabara gave the attendees a lecture on how to watch a football game, and they also received a free can badge featuring an anime character and a picture of Fujitsu running back Gino Gordon.
“I want subculture fans to come to watch football games and football fans to get interested in subcultures,” said Kashiwabara, who grew up loving anime films, cartoons and video games. “There might not be a mutual communication between them now. But if we can provide something interesting to both sides, we can help them make friends, even if only one or two. We want to create an environment where that can happen.
For many sports fans in Japan, Kashiwabara’s name is more familiar than the rules of American football. That’s because the 28-year-old Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, native helped Toyo University win the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden three times during his collegiate career.
Kashiwabara maintained his regular position of running the fifth leg in the first half of the 217.9-km (currently 217.1)relay for four years. The 23.4-km (now 20.8) fifth leg is known for its tough mountain course. Kashiwabara recorded the best time on the course in each of those years, earning him the aforementioned nickname “God of the Mountain.”
“Hakone ekiden is actually a competition of the Kanto collegiate league and smaller than the nationwide competitions such as All-Japan collegiate ekiden or Izumo ekiden,” Kashiwabara said. “But the Hakone ekiden draws around a 20-percent TV rating. It is a big event and the goal of all the ekiden runners in Kanto.”
The popularity of the Hakone ekiden made him a superstar of the sport. But Kashiwabara never felt comfortable getting so much attention.
“I was just a boy from a local place who loved track and field and continued running in college. Ekiden made me famous, but I’m not an entertainer or anything. People came and talked to me on the street. It sometimes scared me at the time,” Kashiwabara said. “I competed in world junior championships and Universiade (World University Games). But everybody regarded me as a runner in the Hakone ekiden. I was confident in myself, and also ran well on the track, but people didn’t pay attention to it. I didn’t like that.
“But now, I’m accustomed to it, or I found the benefit of getting attention. If you have popularity, you can use it. Now I consider what to do by using my popularity.”
Kashiwabara was hired by Fujitsu Limited and joined its track and field club after graduating from Toyo. He ran some marathons with the team, but decided to retire in March due to injuries. After retirement, he was moved to a newly established sports promotional division in Fujitsu to support the company’s sports clubs — track and field, women’s basketball and American football.
The Frontiers contacted Kashiwabara immediately after his retirement.
“One day in April, I was suddenly told to go to the Frontiers office to work, and on the very next day I found myself in Shizuoka Prefecture on a Frontiers-related business trip,” Kashiwabara recalled. “Now I do everything as a team staffer. I bring equipment to the field. I do some paperwork for the players.”
Kashiwabara said he had not watched a football game before joining the Frontiers. He knew Lady Gaga appeared in the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl, but had no knowledge of the rules of football.
One of the things he had to learn first was the difference between a “super ball” and the “Super Bowl.” In Japanese, the words ball and bowl sound similar, but are completely different in American football terms.
Kashiwabara watched a lot of YouTube, read references and asked questions to players and team staff to gain knowledge. By the third game he worked as a staff member in the spring, he knew enough to understand what was happening on the field and had fun watching a game.
“I heard Kashiwabara wanted to work to support or help people after his retirement. So I recommended he join us,” Frontiers general manager Shinya Tokiwa said. “The other reason is the fact he is famous and popular. I expected a person with his fame could contribute to promoting American football. That is what we hope.”
“The collaboration of American football and subcultures is one of the first steps Kashiwabara can provide for the Frontiers.
“I feel watching sports is not always easy for some people,” Kashiwabara said. “To overcome this situation, we may need some help from the different fields of business. Even if it is the subcultures, we have to take it seriously to bring together two different things when necessary.”