Osaka Prefecture is the business hub of mainland Japan, with the modern metal-and-glass high-rises sprouting through the beautiful island countryside, intermingling with the well-worn naturalistic symbols of the past.
The third-largest metropolitan center in the country behind Tokyo and Yokohama, Osaka is unique in its own respects. The modernization of the area under the Meiji and Hensei eras turned the relatively quiet seaside city into a sprawling industrial and economic center, gaining the reputation as one of the world’s most multicultural metropolitan areas and becoming the key cog to Japan’s economy thanks to the presence of the Osaka Exchange and a bevy of Japan’s biggest electronics manufacturers.
You’d never know it from a cursory glance, amongst the manufactured, industrial glitz and jaw-dropping glamor of the beautiful seaside, but Osaka also happens to be the home of a powerhouse gridiron football team in Japan’s fledgling X-League, a professional league made up of both Japanese and American nationals.
It was a fact which certainly caught former Central Michigan defensive back Joshua Cox off-guard.
“The league that I play in, it’s weird because they’re extremely hush-hush about everything,” Cox intimated. “But it’s a big league and the fanbase is really good... [they’re] just insane. The Japanese culture and loyalty to sports sticks out a lot.”
Cox, formerly of Michigan high school football powerhouse Warren De La Salle, was a two-year starter for the Chippewas at cornerback from 2012-2015, earning All-MAC Third Team honors at the position after his senior season.
His professional football journey initially took him to the Arizona Cardinals as a mini-camp tryout, but after landing (and departing) from a few other practice squads, Cox opted to start his career overseas with the Bolzano Giants of the Federazione Italiana di American Football.
It was in the midst of his first season in Italy in 2018 when he received a very curious inquiry.
“I was playing in Italy,” Cox recalled. “The Italian season was still going on, but I was on a bye week... I thought it was a joke. [The Japanese X-League] reached out to me through Instagram and told me to come out and have a tryout,” Cox explained. “In my head I was like, ‘There’s football in Japan?’ I wasn’t too sure about it, but then they sent me the flight, so I might as well go.”
Four years later, Cox has become a mainstay at cornerback for the Panasonic Impulse, contributing towards an effort which has allowed Impulse to participate in the X-League title game in two of his three full campaigns.
“Japan was like a culture shock when I first got out here,” Cox said. “But I like it a lot. I finally got adapted to the language and stuff.”
When Cox took that fateful call in Italy and boarded the plane for Osaka, there wasn’t any guarantee he would stick — or that he could even go back to Italy if it all went sour, as the Bolzano Giants folded just after his departure. But it’s a move he largely considers to be one of the best decisions of his life.
“I flew out here and got to see the culture,” Cox said. “It was really similar to professional leagues back home. I feel like other leagues are more unorganized, but this one was really organized and professional. I liked this opportunity a lot more than playing anywhere else to be honest.”
American gridiron football fans might be shocked to hear such a statement, but it’s a sentiment several “import” players share, including former Michigan Wolverines QB and current Bally Sports Detroit presenter Devin Gardner, who quarterbacked Nojima Sagamihara Rise for two seasons before signing with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2018.
“It was really cool, getting a chance to play and experience their culture,” Gardner told The Detroit News’ Rod Beard back in 2020. “It’s regular football. People think it’s some different form, but it’s American football and expanding and growing especially from when I got there. It’s probably the third-best football in the world behind [the NFL and] Canada. If they start changing the rules and allow more Americans, it’ll pass Canada.”
第4Q— パナソニック インパルス公式 (@gogo_impulse) December 11, 2022
DB23 Coxのインターセプトにより攻守交代 pic.twitter.com/zXeiRocZ0M
Emigrating to Japan on a whim did not come without its set of challenges, and it’s something Cox has been cognizant of since his arrival in Osaka four years ago.
“It was a culture shock, especially being from Detroit,” Cox said, noting the language barrier was especially rough when he first landed. “You stick out like a sore thumb when you’re riding around and stuff. They’re really nice people, so they’ll ask to take pictures, ask what sport you play, or look at you in shock because you don’t see a lot of foreigners in my city.”
Cox chuckled, telling Hustle Belt, “I passed the proficiency exam,” since settling down in Osaka.
“Anything outside of [football], if you’re an American or foreigner coming here, it’s just being able to adapt culturally compared to playing the sport of football.”
Getting to that point of familiarity was a bit of a bumpy ride. An incident two weeks after his arrival in Osaka made him question if he had made the right decision or not.
“I was scared to go out on my own because I didn’t have any phone service,” Cox recalled. “Didn’t know how to take the train. Took the train one time, and the last train is normally at 11:58. I went out in the city, met a couple of my Japanese friends, ate dinner, and when it was time to go home, I made the very last train.”
One problem: he got off the train before he was meant to, and suddenly, found himself abandoned in the Japanese countryside, hours from home by foot.
“The only reason I knew how to get home was I dropped a pin, and I walked home from Umeda Station which took me like four hours. No taxi would stop and get me, and even if they did, I wouldn’t know how to explain to them how to take me home.”
It was a harrowing experience, one which made Cox a bit of a recluse for awhile.
“I didn’t go out for another month,” Cox said. “Not gonna lie, I was debating just waiting until first train at 6 in the morning and riding that one, but I made it.”
But Cox persevered, and eventually, he was able to feel his way around Osaka, both as a footballer and as a person.
“Language-wise, it was tough — going into every meeting and not really knowing what’s going on, and trying to follow along,” Cox said. “But a couple of my friends do speak Japanese and English so they were able to help me out. Trying to adapt to the culture everywhere you go, you don’t know what’s going on. You learn to adapt, which is the coolest thing.”
A different kind of football league
The X-League, which is the premier level of gridiron football in Japan, dates back to 1971 in its heyday as the Japan Shakaijin American Football League.
Much like how other professional sports in Japan formed, the JAFL was originally a collaborative effort between club teams from various businesses and manufacturers (often referred to as “works” teams) in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area. To help diversify the state of play, the JAFL eventually allowed unaffiliated club teams from anywhere to join in, adapting a tiered system involving promotion and relegation to maintain competitive balance, a practice likely adapted from the proliferation of soccer in the country.
A re-branding to “X-League” in 1996 brought Japan to its modern era. In its present make-up, the X-League “Super League”, which Cox is a part of, consists of 12 teams which play a five-game regular season before deciding the league champion with an eight-team playoff bracket — with the semifinals and title game all played in the illustrious Tokyo Dome.
The X-League plays using NCAA gridiron rules, though they opt for 12-minute quarters instead of 15 minutes during the regular season.
Unlike other professional leagues, the X-League opts for a “spring” season and a “fall” season, which can often see two different rosters.
“We have a spring season too, so it makes it hard for us to do it because Panasonic makes it a requirement in our contract to be over here,” Cox said when discussing the possibility of playing in other leagues in the spring. “But some other teams don’t require their Americans to be here in the spring, so they play over in Spain or Germany or Mexico, or coach somewhere else.”
(Cox’s team recently won the “Green Bowl,” the X-League’s three-game springtime tournament, and took on the reigning champions of the tournament on June 11, playing to a draw with rival Fujitsu Frontiers.)
Roster construction is perhaps the most intriguing part of the X-League, which due to the number of works teams at the top level of play, does not have mechanisms for trading contracts. This creates a very player-friendly transaction log whenever action isn’t on the field.
“Players are starting to move around a lot more,” Cox said. “Right after this season, every American on each team signs a one-year. Once that one-year contract is up, you’re basically free to sign wherever, but there’s a deadline where teams have to have their Americans in, or they basically don’t get Americans. They can’t do trades. It’s literally just a free agency pickup type thing.”
Foreign signings are integral to the success of the league, making the retention and acquisition of such players a must for any team trying to move up or stay at their level of play. It’s incumbent upon the teams then to keep up an active social media presence, as these online avenues happen to be the X-League’s most potent recruiter.
“A lot of people reach out to me and ask how to get out there, and I would just tell them to make sure you have your passport, follow the X-League Instagram page,” Cox said. “Normally right after the season, teams are making the decision whether to keep their Americans or not, so just make sure that you’re being aware and actively searching and reaching out to them.”
Salary ranges can vary for non-affiliated club teams such as the Obic Seagulls, who pay between 4.5 to 10 million yen ($33,265 to $73,992 USD) for eight “professional” contracts, four to Japanese nationals and four to recruit for “international” players.
— Inside Sport Japan (@InsideSportJP) February 7, 2023
Seagulls continue to dominate the news cycle
In a sign of its determination to return to the top Obic is offering up to four pro contracts for Japanese players - in addition to the four for foreign nationals.
Salary range is 4.5 to 10 million yen#XLeague # pic.twitter.com/1cXNuRdpTA
Club teams like Panasonic Impulse, which Cox is a part of, are a bit different.
The majority of players don’t draw additional salaries being part of the team, and from 2015 up until 2018, American imports also had to be employed by Panasonic to be eligible for play.
“I didn’t know really anything about American football in Japan, but once I got here, I realized the one thing that a couple of teams here pride themselves on is that they are company workers,” Cox said. “My team prides themselves on being company workers, how guys work 9 to 5 at the company and then come and play. They switch from being businessmen to football players. It’s been like that for generations, basically since Panasonic started their football team.”
It’s a cultural touchstone which continues to define Panasonic Impulse to this day, and is part of the attraction for Cox in staying with the Osaka-based squad for as long as he has.
“Being able to see them when they come out to football, they’re basically blowing steam and they’re doing it all together,” Cox said. “There’s so much camaraderie because they work next to each other, they know how hard each of them worked that day. Some days I know they don’t want to practice, but then they look over and see guys who traveled to Hokkaido this morning, work there, and come back for practice,” Cox continued. “‘If he’s over there having fun, then I can too.’ So I’m living the dream, because what excuse do I have?”
Once all the rosters are assembled, the action starts, and play begins in what is largely considered the second-best foreign league in the world.
Given its underground nature and the league structure allowing for promotion and relegation, there can be a certain charm to the variation of locales in the X-League, something Cox doesn’t take for granted.
“There’s places like Oji Stadium and the Tokyo Dome, and you’ll go to these fields and you’ll be surrounded by mountains, or off the water, or right downtown,” Cox said. “These are some of the best venues I’ve played in for sure, even compared to American schools.”
The day-to-day cycle of being a X-League member is also wholly unique; unlike most other leagues, where teams might travel together to a game via bus or plane, players in the X-League can travel on their own to games thanks to the country’s efficient railway system. In a country so densely populated like Japan, where 326.20 people live per square mile, it’s almost a necessity, as the country is made up of 75 percent mountainous terrain (with 68 percent of the country also covered in thick forests).
“I love the transportation to games, especially when we take the Shinkansen [Japan’s famous bullet train],” Cox said. “I live in Osaka, the bullet train takes about two hours to get to Tokyo. It’s a super cool ride. I get a ride pass to Mount Fuji and stuff. Other than that, we’ll drive to close games which would be like 30 minutes. Transportation is really easy in Japan. It’s sort of an inconvenience to have a car. We have trains everywhere.”
The tumultuous history of football in Japan
So how was it that such an American cornerstone wound up on the shores of Japan?
Contrary to pouplar belief, American gridiron football in Japan has had roots on the mainland well before the American occupation during World War II — though it’s rife with complications.
The first recorded game of Japanese-led gridiron football was held on November 29, 1934, as students from Rikkyo University, Meiji University and Waseda University faced off against members of the Yokohama Country and Athletics Club in front of 20,000 people seated at the Meiji Jingu Stadium. The student coalition trounced the ragtag group of American, British, Belgian, and French nationals by a final score of 26-0, and just over a month later, the three universities who created the coalition for the first game to be played on Japanese soil would establish the Tokyo Collegiate American Football Association, under guidance from Dr. Paul Frederick Rusch and three other American ex-pats.
Dr. Rusch, a native Kentuckian who made missionary and humanitarian work in Japan his life’s mission after a trip to help the country rebuild from the Great Kyoko Earthquake of 1923, is often considered one of the grandfathers of American Football for helping introduce the sport to students at Rikkyo University. Together with Heita Okabe, a Japanese national who had been translating gridiron football concepts to his native land after a student exchange trip in the States, Rusch would help to popularize the foreign sport at the university level in Tokyo.
Gridiron football continued on in this way until World War II, when Emperor Hirohito banned “enemy sports,” including the extremely popular baseball (or “yakyu”), after Japan aligned itself with the Axis Powers.
(In fact, Dr. Rusch was detained by Japanese authorities and deported back to America as a prisoner of war as part of these demands, after being wrongly accused of being an enemy spy for years by Japanese media.)
It was initially American troops who brought the game back to Japan of their own volition, setting up the infamous “Atom Bowl” in Hiroshima six months after the nuclear strike which destroyed it and sister city Nagasaki. A curious New Year’s Day exhibition set in the grim reality of unbelievably sad devastation, it featured many players from the collegiate and professional football ranks, including “Bullet” Bill Omanski, the NFL’s leading rusher in 1939. The Atom Bowl was played in front of 2,000 Marines and a score of locals watching from buildings away from the grounds, with Omanski’s Hanshinya Tigers defeating Angelo Bertelli’s Nagasaki Bears 14-13.
It was an effective — if pre-emptive — rush of a planned cultural assimilation by General Douglas MacArthur, who was charged with modernizing Japan’s socio-economic state after the fall of the Empire.
Shortly after the contest, a Japanese-American man by the name of Peter Okada sought permission to help introduce gridiron football to fill the void left by the ban on judo and kendo (which was done in part as an effort to pivot Japan away from decades of incorporating fascist ideology via sports), and together with the newly-returned Dr. Rusch, the two brought back gridiron football and re-organized it into more of the structure we see today at the prep and college levels.
(Somewhat of an aside: Gen. McArthur was set to ban similarly ban karate as well due to its militaristic overtones, but was convinced by Prof. Nobuhide Ohama of Waseda University to keep the sport intact — eventually propagating its worldwide growth.)
There have been a number of attempts to popularize American football in Japan since the post-war era, which have included NFL preseason games, an NCAA college football game featuring Barry Sanders, and even a series of videos teaching the fundamentals of football starring 1970s television idol Sayuri Takashima filmed at Notre Dame.
The X-League (which was first established as the Japan American Football League in 1971) has also done its best to spread the gospel of gridiron, laying claim the world’s biggest league to contain a promotion/relegation system.
But even with the revered history of the various high school and collegiate leagues, the annual tradition of the Rice Bowl between the X-League champion and college champion, and being home to what is regarded as the third-best pro league in the world, gridiron football is still by and large considered a foreign curiosity in Japan.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts met at the Tokyo Dome, and the NFL has shifted their priorities in the Asiatic and Oceanic markets to focus on China and Australia in recent years. Demographics have also indicated an increased interest in rugby and skateboarding, two sports promoted heavily thanks to Japan hosting the 2019 World Rugby Cup and the 2020 Olympic games.
The sport has also faced humiliation in the guise of a “Bountygate”-esque scandal from 2018, when Nihon University defensive end Taisuke Mitagawa admitted an illegal hit he performed in a game vs. Kwansei Gakuin was done at the behest of his head coach Masato Uchida, who resigned after the incident. It was an event which sparked consternation amongst even the non-sporting population, calling into question if the sport should even be played at all.
It’s under this weight, both historical and present-day, that gridiron football continues to thrive despite the circumstances, finding its roots on municipal grounds and leased stadiums.
The past, present, and future of Josh Cox
When the conversation turned to the USFL and XFL, two emergent dual spring leagues in North America, Cox considered his words.
“I was with the AAF — the Orlando team — and they folded,” Cox said back in 2022. “If the opportunity presents itself...”
He paused briefly before pressing on.
“But I love playing over here. I feel like we for sure need a developmental league in America and one of these leagues surely has to stick.”
His tone has somewhat shifted since then, as Cox has grown more comfortable in his new home.
“To be honest, I’m taking it year by year,” Cox said when asked about his future in our second interview with him this past month. “I’m really honing in on my Japanese, so if there’s something I really want to do, I really want to build the bridge between Japan football and America, whether it’s getting professional coaches out here for the summertime or getting players from America over here just to run camps.”
Efforts like the Japan-U.S. Dream Bowl and Team Japan’s one-off exhibitions in the United States have gone a long way towards establishing the connections Cox hopes to see himself be a part of in the future.
“I used to put my head down just thinking about football and everybody looked at me as the one who would make more of myself than football,” Cox told the Detroit News’ Rod Beard back in 2020. “I’m about to finish my masters; I only have one or two classes left. I could see myself staying here and being the bridge to helping the Japanese to elevate to American football level.”
Three years later, that’s still Cox’s mission in Osaka.
Cox has done his part to grow the game in Japan since his arrival, often volunteering as a guest coach as part of Impulse’s youth outreach program, and has more recently been selected as one of four X-League defensive backs to coach his position at the league’s youth camps.
Cox finds his inspiration for his outreach effort from the very students he works with, citing a positive, player-friendly culture which holds itself accountable for team success.
“The culture’s different. Some of the high schools are player-ran programs. Coaches won’t even come to practice,” Cox remarked. “The players run individual [drills] and everything, and it’s pretty insane to see.”
Cox is aware of the potential of American football in Japan, and is a major advocate for growing the sport on the mainland. He remains hopeful Japan can be taken more seriously as a market for future growth.
“The sport has become more popular,” Cox said with certainty. “The next move for Japan football would be a collab with the NFL. That’s the next thing that needs to happen when you see the NFL collaborating with all these different countries. Nobody’s tapped into the Japanese market. That’s what’s to come next for American football here in Japan. The popularity has definitely been leveling up every year since I’ve gotten here for sure.”
Such optimism in that culture makes the recently re-kindled Japan-U.S. Dream Bowl, which Cox took part in as a member of Team Japan this year, vitally important for the visibility of gridiron football as both a sport and a cultural unifier.
“For me it was a reality shock,” Cox said regarding his selection to the Team Japan roster as the team’s sole foreign-born defensive back. “Character-wise, they have to look at me as a good person and good enough to represent their country when they could have picked a native. It’s just an honor, me being American, getting to go against my own country. I took it as a huge honor and went to every practice ready to win with ultimate respect. I was gonna prove they were making the right decision picking me for Team Japan.”
Played in mid-January in Tokyo’s National Stadium, Team Japan fell just short against the Ivy League All-Stars by a final score of 24-20.
Cox performed admirably despite the close loss, picking up a tip-drill interception for Team Japan to kill a half-ending drive after a late punt return brought the Ivy League All-Stars to inside Japan’s 10-yard line.
On the domestic side, he’ll ready up for a fifth season of play.
Panasonic Impulse have high expectations every season as one of the top outfits in the X-League and were the best team in the 2022 fall season, carrying an undefeated record going into the X-League title game. They took on their arch-rival Fujitsu Frontiers, another works team who have also been prolific in X-League play over the decades, in the 76th edition of the Rice Bowl back in January, ultimately falling by a final score of 29-21.
(Coincidentally, Fujitsu, located in Tokyo’s Minatsu City, is one of Panasonic’s main competitors in both the domestic and international electronics marketplaces.)
The title game result was a familiar feeling for Cox personally, a fact he freely let out, in hope acknowledging it might potentially change his fate.
“When I was at Central [Michigan], we went to four bowl games in the five years I was there and lost every single one,” Cox said. “We weren’t the underdog in basically any of them. And same with my high school and same here. I feel like I’m a little cursed. I’ve been trying to break the curse and at least get one ring while I’m here.”
But what does the future hold for Cox himself?
For now, Cox continues to push forward and do what he can to help his team, both on and off the field.
Whether that’s building the game in Japan with the youngsters, or being an ambassador back home for the benefits of playing in the X-League for his fellow Americans, Cox will seemingly do whatever it takes to fulfill his mission: “I want to be the bridge to help connect the two cultures and develop the game in both areas — expose Japan culture to America and vice versa.”
But sooner or later, Cox will have to face the realities of playing football for a job and the consequences therein.
Much like the cherished sakura tree, the average lifespan of a football player is fairly short. It takes a lot of care of attention to get such a tree to bloom, and it’s just as delicate as it is beautiful; capable both of sparking fierce joy and being a reminder of the indomitable cycle of life.
In the same way, nothing is ever certain for anyone who plays American football. It’s ultimately a beautiful sport which exposes us as viewers to impressive feats of athleticism to recall to loved ones until our final days, but its brutality cannot be ignored. Football spits out and churn through many faces in many places, at all levels of play and skill, with no discernment or mercy— with players floating in the wake like petals in the wind before ultimately finding the ground.
From talking to him, it seems for as long as he is willing and is able, Cox will continue to contribute to professional football. He’s been an all-league player in the past, and there is still more to accomplish for him before he can consider calling it a career, from both a personal and team success standpoint.
There’s legacies to be established, after all.
Panasonic Impulse kicks off their fall calendar in September, looking to avenge last year’s championship loss top Fujitsu Frontiers. You can follow Impulse’s season on Twitter @gogo_impulse, and follow Josh Cox on Twitter @j_cox_14.
Our sincere thanks go out to Cox for volunteering to be featured, and to Tatsumi Tetsuo at Panasonic for providing team-affiliated media.
Interviews were conducted in August 2022 and May 2023, with Steve Helwick conducting both times, using a series of his own and other questions from James Jimenez.