By John E. Gibson and Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff WritersA basketball-style dribble here, a punched pass there, then suddenly, a forward kick. And always a lot of running — usually done to set up a finishing thump off someone’s foot.
But it’s not all just for kicks.
The sport is Gaelic football, an unusual blend of soccer, rugby and a touch of basketball that is helping to connect cultures — particularly Irish and Japanese — here in Tokyo in a fun-but-competitive environment that has everyone involved shooting for a common goal.
The Japan Gaelic Athletic Association started in the mid-1990s and has welcomed players from various countries — not just Ireland, where the sport rules.
The Tokyo chapter features squads for men and women, who all train with the goal of having success in the North Asian Gaelic Games, coming up next weekend, and the Asian Gaelic Games, set this year for November.
Members of the club are people who have day jobs or are in school. They train in this contact sport on weekends and after work or classes in preparation for those two main competitions.
Participants take the sport seriously, but it’s not all about the on-pitch results.
“GAA is all about community spirit, building teams and the community working together,” Irishman Jodi Meenan, the Japan GAA chairman, said during a June 24 training session at Yashiokita Koen park in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward.
“It’s very common that anyone who’ll come out from Ireland to any country, no matter where they go, one of the first things they’ll look for is the local Gaelic club. Even if they’re not a natural player, they’ll look for the Gaelic club because they know that’s where the community will be,” the 36-year-old said.
Unlike most sports clubs or groups that provide an opportunity for cross-cultural interaction, Gaelic football requires the new players involved to first learn about the game, starting with its uncommon set of rules and its nuances.
Once that’s covered, it’s all about building up the skills, including the underhand punch passing that’s similar to volleyball digs.
“Until I grew accustomed to it, it took some time for it to become natural for me — I just threw the ball [normally an illegal action],” said 40-year-old Maya Wada, a native of Nagano Prefecture who works in the information technology sector.
“After about a year, I had the rules down, for the most part. I enjoy the time with teammates, and I was able to put my lack of exercise issues behind me,” said Wada, who joined the club six years ago.
This summer she plans to travel to Ireland to compete in the GAA World Games as part of the team representing Asia.
Asked what he enjoys about the sport, Kaito Ikeuchi, the youngest member of the men’s team at 18, pointed to the tempo.
“The fast pace and the fact that there’s no time to rest,” are what attracts him to it. “It’s similar to soccer, but there’s more scoring. And [whether watching or playing] it’s a speed-oriented game, so you don’t get tired of watching and you don’t have time to look away.
“But I think experiencing this kind of connection with other cultures is something that’s rare,” said Ikeuchi, a college freshman from Saitama Prefecture who studied for a year in Ireland and joined the club last year.
The cultural and community aspects do play an important role for the club.
“There have been some who’ve joined for just the social angle,” said Miki Sadoyama, a 45-year-old from Hawaii who is a translator at a bank and joined the group in 2009. “In recent years, though, girls who have athletic ability have joined up.”
Athletic prowess and knowledge of sports are important for players, especially those from Ireland, where Meenan said each county has men’s and women’s club teams that participate in a nationwide tournament.
“I’ve been playing Gaelic football since before I could walk,” said Chris O’Sullivan, who works in finance and said he joined the club the day after he arrived in Japan a little more than one year ago. “And where I’m from, it’s basically religion — we take it very, very seriously.
“Last year we lost in the semifinal, and I know a lot of us were very upset. So we have a mission this year that we won’t let it happen again, so the trainings have really been going well. We’re really looking forward to competing in the North Asian Games.”
O’Sullivan, in his 20s, said playing styles of Gaelic football vary across Ireland in terms of kick passing and hand passing, but he is impressed by the way those new to the sport here have adapted.
“I have to say, the Japanese players, they catch on quickly,” the County Kerry native said.
“The one thing I’ve been really surprised by is the skill level of people who’ve never played the sport before. Some of the kick passing is very good — I don’t know where that comes from.”
The learning is a two-way street on the pitch. Meenan said the approach the experience-thin Japanese players have makes them rely on other training methods that they incorporate from other sports.
“You use your hands and your feet, and there’s quite a lot more room for error, and errors happen,” Meenan said. “It’s so fast-moving there’s always going to be some errors. In Gaelic, there’s a lot of quick, decision-based thinking, instead of just a structured set piece that sometimes coaches might focus on in Japanese soccer.
“We don’t have any set piece. We practice some stuff, but we’ve taken the focus from the Japanese cultural aspects of soccer and we created some semi-set plays.”
The natural language exchange that takes place on the pitch is nothing unique from other team-oriented activities. But the community aspect is highlighted by off-the-pitch activities.
Meenan said the about 60 members of the group, which aims to develop a youth squad by introducing more children to the sport at an early age, has a calendar of annual events.
For instance, the group plans to have a yukata party next month as part of a boat cruise in Tokyo Bay, usually spends time cherry blossom viewing each year and attends fireworks exhibitions, to name a few.
Sadoyama hopes that someday her son will be taking his shots in the sport.
“Gaelic football is definitely fun to play,” she said. “We’d like to make this club bigger also with more Japanese participants.
“Anyone who loves sports and playing sports that involves a ball is welcome. Irish people are warm and friendly, so the club offers you a great opportunity to learn the culture.”
Japan GAA is always looking for players. Contact the club at www.japangaa.org
■ BASIC RULES
Players: 15 per side (six backs, two midfielders, six forwards and a goalkeeper)
Goal: Soccer-style goal with rugby-style goalposts
Scoring: 1 point for kicks that travel between the goalposts above the crossbar; 3 points for kicks or volleyball-style spikes under the crossbar and into the net.
Ball advancement: The ball can be carried for a maximum of four steps before a player must bounce, dribble, solo (dropping the ball onto the foot and tapping it back to the hand), pass or shoot.
Passing: Can be done only by a volleyball-style underhand punch or by foot.
Tackling: Only shoulder-to-shoulder contact is permitted, as is slapping the ball out of the hands. Other actions result in a foul.