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From Minato-ku to the Entire Nation! The Fascination and Future of the New Olympic Discipline Lacrosse

Translated from Japanese by
Lacrosse is a sport in which players use sticks called "crosse" with a net attached to one end to try and shoot a ball with a diameter of about 6 cm into the goal of the other team. As a ball game that fascinates with its high level of strategy and dynamic game development, the number of players in Japan has been steadily increasing. At the 11th World Games, an international sports competition held in 2022, the Japanese team won its first ever bronze medal. Japan will also be hosting the WORLD LACROSSE Women's World Championship and Men's World Championship to decide the world's best Lacrosse team, in 2026 and 2027, respectively. And finally, Lacrosse will be included as new Olympic discipline at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, attracting unprecedented levels of attention to the sport. But did you know that the birthplace of Lacrosse in Japan was actually in Minato-ku? We talked with Wataru Anzai, a director and the CSO (Chief Strategy Officer) of the Japan Lacrosse Association, about the history of Lacrosse, what makes it special, as well as its connection with Minato-ku.

What is lacrosse, a sport that originated in North America?

――Could you give us a quick explanation of the game for people who might have heard the name lacrosse, but don't actually know what kind of sport it is.

Basically, it is a field game played with teams of ten players and matches consist of four quarters each lasting 15 minutes. Similar to Sevens in rugby, there is also a variation of lacrosse called Sixes played with six members per team, and Sixes has been chosen as the variation to be played at the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. There are also different rules and equipment for men's and women's games. In men's matches, body checking, meaning physical contact with an opposing player who is carrying the ball, is allowed. Hitting or blocking the other player with the stick is allowed in attempting to make the player drop the ball. Because of this, the players wear helmets and gloves as protective gear. Just think of ice hockey or American football. In women's matches, on the other hand, physical contact is not allowed, so players do not wear any protective equipment. The diverse cross work, teamworm and fast play in women's matches and the more agressive play with body checking in men's matches are part of the appeal of watching Lacrosse.

Photo courtesy of Japan Lacrosse Association

Photo courtesy of Japan Lacrosse Association

――The birthplace of lacrosse is North America, right?

"Yes. Lacross developed from games played by Native Americans as ceremonial rituals. They were played to settle disputes or conflicts between tribes and after French immigrants observed these games, it was made into a sport in the 17th century and this was the beginning of lacrosse as we know it today. That is also the reason why the name for lacrosse is French. Crosse is the word for the sticks used in the ceremonies and together with its definite article la, we get lacrosse. Like in soccer, there is an international lacrosse competition every four years, called the WORLD LACROSSE CHAMPIONSHIP, and the teams from lacrosse's birthplace - North America, Canada and the Haudenosaunee team, which represents not a nation but the Native American tribes who gave birth to lacrosse - are all very strong and usually come in top. By the way, Japan made 5th place at both the Women's Championship and Men's Championship held in 2022 and 2023.

In Japan, the history of lacrosse began at Keio University?

――Japan has been receiving increasingly more attention at the international level due to recent achievements like winning the bronze medal at the World Games. Looking at where we are now, I'm interested in hearing about how lacrosse started out in Japan. I heard that students at Keio University kicked it all off?

That is true. It started in 1986, when 15 first-year students at Keio University became interested in lacrosse and formed a team. Their group consisted mainly of Keio Senior High School graduates and for their first year in college, they wanted to try something new. By chance, two of themhad read about lacrosse in an article in the fashion magazine Men’s Club," decided they wanted to try it and wnt looking for like-minded students. They called the embassy of Canada, as the home of lacrosse, and upon explaining that they wished to play lacrosse in Japan, they were introduced to Norio Endo (JLA's first president), the Asia manager of the American company Grumman (now Northrop) with the help of the American embassy. This turned out to be a fateful meeting. He and Johns Hopkins University in America, which was home to the reigning lacrosse college team champions at the time, provided an extraordinary level of support to making lacrosse known in Japan.

――That is impressive.

All thanks to these 15 students who wanted to do something that no one else in Japan had done before no matter the cost. I think it was their drive and passion that inspired the people at the embassy to help them. In 1987, Johns Hopkins University started sending their head coach and top players to Japan for temporary stays to teach the Keio University team lacrosse at a world-class level. Back then, practice was held exclusively on the riverbed of the Tama river.By the way, Yusuke Sasaki, the current president of the Japan Lacrosse Association, was one of these 15 students and others from this group are also still involved in lacrosse-related activities like managing the JLA academy, which certifies Japanese lacrosse coaches.
――Keio University's main campus is located in Mita in Minato-ku, so in this sense, would it be fair to call Minato-ku and the Tama riverbed the birthplace of lacrosse in Japan?

Yes. Since its beginnings at Keio University in Minato-ku, lacrosse has spread all throughout the country. Today, around 13,000 people play lacrosse and while this number went back somewhat during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now rapidly growing again. Most lacrosse players started playing in college. Looking at both men and women, about 90% of all current players started out in college. While many people think of lacrosse as a college sport, as JLA we would like to familiarize the game more among senior high school students and younger age groups, without destroying its appeal in the college setting. The number of younger players is actually already increasing, and in Kanto, for example, there are about 30 senior high school girls teams that are quite active and we are seeing the first elementary school and younger junior teams and children learning lacrosse at sport centers.

Photo courtesy of Japan Lacrosse Association

A culture that values players' autonomy

――Having more people who play lacross makes it easier to have matches, and I think that playing actual matches helps understanding the fascination of lacrosse even better.

I believe the 15 founding members must have felt the exact same thing. Having established a Lacrosse Club at Keio University with the help of the American embassy and John Hopkins University was one thing, but without other teams to play against, it's not really that interesting. The natural thing to do was to invite new members to the circle or club at your own university. But the Keio students also went to Tokyo University, Waseda University, Aoyama Gakuin University, Teikyo University and other universities to recruit players and established lacrosse clubs at all of these universities, too. In 1990, only five years after starting this new sport, the number of people playing it had already grown to around 2000.
――So you recruited students from other universities and created a lacrosse club at that university. I am amazed at their ability to take action.

"The hands-on spirit of building our own playground with our own hands may be the foundation of Japan lacrosse, which is basically a culture where the players on the field think about what they want to do and what they want to do. I think that coaches and alumni basically respect the decisions made by the players, watch over the players, including their mistakes, and give advice and support so that they can learn from them."
――Recruiting students from other universities and even creating lacrosse clubs at those universities - that level of work and proactiveness is surprising.

This spirit of hands-on work, of creating the playing field for yourself with your own hands, might be the very core of Japanese lacrosse. Lacrosse has a culture where the players on the field usually decide for themselves how to play and what strategy to follow. The coach and former players respect the players' decisions, watch over their play, including if things do not go as planned, and then give advice and support in a way that the players can learn from the experience. I think this is the most common style in lacrosse.

――So it is led entirely by the players.

Even in college, the students are the ones responsible for securing practice locations and putting together training menus. Interestingly, they even choose their own coach. Every year, the captain and managers get together and discuss who to ask to be their coach that year. So it is not uncommon for coaches who didn't achieve good results or did too little communication to not get asked again and be relieved of their duties. All of these things are delegated to the students. In the JLA academy's coach certification program, we also recommend that coaches try not to give instructions like 'do this, do that' as much as guide the players by asking questions or showing ways to achieve objectives.
――This is a clear difference to the stereotypical so-called "hard work-focused" sports.

I think of lacrosse as a 'neo-hard work sport.' Of course there are things you only learn by challenging yourself to reach difficult goals or by going through a tough process, and overcoming such hardships is part of the fun - the players all understand this and in that sense, lacrosse is 'hard work-focused,' but in terms of personal relationships and the spirit of the competition, lacrosse is very modern.

The Japan Lacrosse Association's work to support competitions

――What kind of work is the Japan Lacrosse Association doing to promote an even wider spread of lacrosse?

As a recent example, thanks to the support from NISSIN FOODS and the Tokyo Minato City Travel & Tourism Association, we were able to hold a large-scale event, the 'NISSIN FOODS presents 33rd Lacrosse Japanese National Championship A1@Yokohama Stadium,' on January 14th, 2024. Until now, lacrosse competitions were often rather stoic affairs, where fans silently watch the players battle it out on the field. But for the championship on January 14th, we put a large focus on entertainment and showbiz flair in a way that Japanese lacrosse had never seen before. With Yokohama Stadium as the venue, the scale of the event was several times bigger than previous championships, and thanks to all the support, a huge number of fans came to the event.

Photo courtesy of Japan Lacrosse Association

――Does this mean that the sponsorship has made the tournament more open?

"Yes. Lacrosse has always been a sport that has valued the independent part, and it is a sport that started with the creation of our own playground with our own hands, so it is unusual for a sports organization, but we have received almost no sponsorship or subsidies. However, there is also the issue that this will not lead to significant development as a sport. The Japan Lacrosse Association was originally a voluntary organization, and in 2018 it became a general incorporated association and in 2022, but when it became a general incorporated association, it was decided as a policy to "properly connect with society and develop the sport of lacrosse," and now we are gradually expanding our sponsorship."
――So getting sponsors on board helped you make it a more open event?

Yes. Lacrosse has always placed importance on being independent and with its history of players creating their playing fields from scratch, it had been receiving almost no sponsorship money or subsidies, which is rather unusual for a sports association. But this also meant that we couldn't expect any large development in the way competitions were held. The Japan Lacrosse Association was originally a private organization and became first a general incorporated association in 2018, and then a public incoporated association in 2022. At the time of becoming a general incorporated association, the members decided on the objective of 'Connecting with society and developing the sport lacrosse,' and now we are in the process of slowly expanding sponsorships.

――So the championship in January was a big turning point.

That's right. It was great that we could hold the Japanese National Championship that shows Japan's best college teams and club teams competing against each other in such a huge venue as Yokohama Stadium. We spent over a year preparing for the event and put a lot of effort into PR, for example by placing advertisements in Japan's eight largest train stations. Thanks to that, the event was also picked up by the media; for example, in addition to the National Championship matches, we also held four exhibition matches on one day featuring both the Women's and Men's Japanese College All-star and Japanese Amateur Adult All-Star teams, which were broadcast by BS Japan TV. The championship was also mentioned in the NHK sports program 'Sunday Sports' on the evening of the event. We also invited Nakazawa Yuji, former Japan national team soccer player, as official navigator to get the audience excited and introduce the guests during the championship. Mr. Nakazawa has been promoting Japanese lacrosse since about three years ago with his special lacrosse program 'Nakazawa Yuji's La-la-la Lacrosse' on Television Kanagawa.

――Lastly, please share with us your goals as association for the future.

As association, I believe our most important objective is to make everyone familiar with Lacrosse. Watching a match shows people the high level of strategy and many other factors involved in playing the game. Lacrosse uses the playing field in the same was as soccer or basketball, handles the ball in a way similar to tennis or baseball, and includes body contact like in rugby or American football, so I believe it has something to offer for anyone who likes sports. In this sense, I think our job is to think about how to get people who have never heard of lacrosse know about it and become familiar with it. It would be great to find a way to promote lacrosse while valuing its culture of individual decision-making.
<Message from the Chairman of the Tokyo Minato City Travel & Tourism Association>

Japanese Lacrosse, the sport of endless possibilities.
The Minato-ku Travel & Tourism Association will be cheering for Japan's lacrosse team and hoping to see the birth of new Olympians! and new medalists! in this sport born in Minato-ku!!
~From Minato-ku to the world!~

Hitohisa Watanabe, Chairman of the Tokyo Minato City Travel & Tourism Association
【Japan Lacrosse Association Official Website】

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