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On the surface, Japanese football is a clone of its American original: The rules, fields, equipment, and plays are straight imports, after allowing for shorter physical stature. Some 400 teams, from high school to company-sponsored, compete in autumn matches for finals such as the Rice Bowl, Japan Bowl, Coca-Cola Bowl, or Tokyo Super Bowl. Cheerleaders wave pompoms and kick as high as their eyes. Halftime brings out brass bands, parachutists, and balloons of red, white, and blue. Since football was introduced here in 1934, Japan has slowly become the Land of the Rising Pigskin, with young people attracted not only to the game but to its grand rituals.

But like many sports imported here, Japanese ``spirit'' has taken over ``Amefuto.''

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An entire team, for instance, may weep after a tense football game - both winners and losers - in an appreciated display of emotion. Fans care less about victories than whether a team displays ultimate virtues: effort, discipline, harmony.

Japan's winningest quarterback, Tatsuya Tokai of the Asahi Beer Silver Stars, says he took up the game in college only because he wanted to be No. 1 in some sport. The nation's most popular sport, baseball, is crowded with would-be stars: ``Football was the only sport in which there was a chance of being a champion,'' he says.

``The '80s saw American football in Japan reach full stride as the number of fans and players expanded,'' says Ken Swensen, an American expatriate and director of the American Football Association of Japan. The enthusiasm of the players makes up for any lack of skills or size, he says.

In recent years, as American football games have been broadcast by satellite to Japan, the game's popularity has seen its greatest expansion. Attendance at bowl games has gone up 16 percent over the past two years, reaching 336,000 last year. Three years ago, tickets began to be sold rather than given away.

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