East Asia friends at spring practice

CHAPEL HILL – After the United States and Japan squared off over 60 years ago in World War II, many believe that, ultimately, the Americans' post-war occupation there brought the two nations closer together.

Japanese youth took to baseball like West Coasters later took to sushi. Now, another aspect of American culture has begun to thrive in the Land of the Rising Sun -- American football.

"Basically, Japanese people like a fight," Kyoto University offensive coordinator Sato Fujita said. "It's like Sumo wrestling, especially on the line."

And thanks to the bond between one of the sport's ambassadors to Japan, Tom Pratt, and UNC head coach John Bunting, West met Far East last week during the Tar Heels' spring football practices.

"The Japanese are very inquisitive and they love American football," Pratt said.

Pratt and Fujita brought four Japanese players with them to observe UNC's spring drills and pick up some pointers: quarterback Jin Kawanami, wide receiver You Sukizaki, linebacker Tsukasa Kondo and defensive back Naoki Hirooka. They interacted with the Carolina athletes and coaches, sitting in on position meetings and film sessions.

The objective? Exposure more than anything else.

"They are really gaining a lot of insight," Pratt said. "You can do the book and you can do the tapes and all of that kind of thing, but when the quarterback can watch the intensity of the throwing, it's great for them.

"They can now go back to their teammates and relate how the game is played."

It has been a learning experience for all involved. And, thanks to UNC walk-on linebacker Leon Scroggins, a student of Japanese language who is serving as translator, the players have been able to interact with each other socially as well.

"They are excited and they are fun," Bunting said of his recent visitors. "They talked with the team a little bit. It was kind of neat. Some of them understand a little bit of English, but not a whole lot."

Pratt and Bunting coached side by side in the early 1990s while assistant coaches with the Kansas City Chiefs.

"Tom and I go way back and we've stayed in touch over the years," Bunting said. "I have a great deal of respect for him."

After his coaching stint with the Chiefs, Pratt went to work in Tampa Bay under Sam Wyche. Then, when Wyche was fired along with his assistants, Pratt found himself with too much time on his hands and made a radical career decision.

"When Sam got let go, we all did; so I basically retired," Pratt said. "But then I got involved with Japanese football. I started going over there in '98, so this will be five years now that I've been going over. I go over in the fall."

Pratt began working for a company team for which Fujita is the head coach. During Pratt's four years as an assistant, Fujita's teams have won two national championships.

Much like the early days of baseball in the United States, the biggest football teams are sponsored by private companies in a loosely affiliated league. Players owe their first loyalty to the company, not to the team. But teams also can be affiliated with schools.

"It's amateur football, but they are company teams," Pratt said. "They sponsor the teams. It's kind of like their professional football. Sato was kind of on loan to that (Kyoto) team."

At the college level, the Japanese field more than 150 teams. In their Division I classification, there are three eight-team leagues that vie for a national championship. Then, in the final game of the season, the college champion and the company league champion battle it out in the cleverly named Rice Bowl.

Fujita noted that, even on "company" teams, some players get paid and some don't, and not all teams have full-time coaches. "They are not equal," he said.

"In Japan, things are different," Pratt said. "Coaches don't go out and hustle their own jobs. So (Fujita) had to go back to Kyoto University, where he is the offensive coordinator. I went over last year and spent six weeks of the season with them."

Still in its infancy, Japanese football can benefit from exposure to American sports, Pratt said.

"John and I had talked," Pratt said, "and I said I was going to come up here for spring practice for a few days. So I asked him if there was any reason why we couldn't bring the Japanese coach and four players over. He said that would be great, so that's how we got here.

Fujita said he has been awestruck with the size and speed of the U.S. players: "They are so big. And the coaches' enthusiasm…that's what impressed me."

And his impressions of the Tar Heels burly third-year coach: "He has a lot of energy and he's very strict, but still a gentle man," Fujita said.

Pratt and Fujita made a similar trek previously to the University of Miami, where Pratt once worked. And they have also brought players to observe various NFL camps. But this is the first time the players have made the trip with them.

Bunting left the door open for a possible UNC exhibition in Japan one day.

"You never know what might happen with something like this," he said smiling. "You get some money, you never know what might happen."

The Tar Heels said goodbye to Pratt, Fujita and the rest of the Japanese players on Wednesday.

Or, being polite, they made it "sayonara."

(pictured from left to right: Tom Pratt, Tsukasa Kondo and Sako Fujita)

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