Hyogo: Crossing religious barriers for gridiron glory

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Masasuke Eda stands next to the football monument at Kifune Shrine in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. The words “Kwansei Gakuin University American Football Club” are etched onto its base.

AMAGASAKI, Hyogo — Visitors who pass through the dark green otorii, a 7-meter-high great gate standing along a busy national highway, and walk through areas of the Kifune Shrine will notice an unusual monument amid the silence: an oval-shaped stone in the shape of a football.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The great gate at Kifune Shrine

The shrine in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, is a historical facility that was founded about 700 years ago. The monument, however, is quite new.

People involved with the American football team at Kwansei Gakuin University put it up in May this year.

The team, dubbed the “Fighters,” is a 31-time winner of the Koshien Bowl, the national collegiate football championship game. The Fighters struggled between the 1980s and 2000s because Kyoto University and Ritsumeikan University developed into powerhouses in the sport.

Kawansei Gakuin even had difficulty winning its Kansai league to earn the right to play in the Koshien Bowl.

Recently, however, the team has returned to prominence, winning the Koshien Bowl eight times since 2011.

The reason why there is a monument of a football on the grounds of the shrine has to do with the fact that the priest used to play for the team. The relationship between the shrine and the squad began in 1991.

When priest Masasuke Eda was a fourth-year student, the Fighters were floundering, finishing a team-worst sixth in the first division of the Kansai Collegiate American Football League.

Parents of teammates and others involved asked Kifune Shrine to pray for the team’s success ahead of the 1991 season. The team then went on to win the Koshien Bowl for the first time in six years. Of course, nobody knew for sure whether it was divine intervention, but the ritual became annual.

According to ancient documentation, the shrine was established in 1326 and was moved to its present location in 1715. The main deity of the shrine is Takaokami no Kami, the god of rain. As there is another shrine in Kyoto dedicated to the same deity with the same pronunciation “Kifune Shrine,” local residents have called the Amagasaki location “Ama no Kifune-san.”

The shrine has been holding an event for about 300 years in which danjiri floats smash into each other to please the deity during an August summer festival.

The 52-year-old Eda said: “Since the deity likes to watch big collisions, the divine virtue might appear at the fierce physical battles in football, too.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Cherry trees planted every time the Fighters won the Koshien Bowl are seen on the premise.

Instead of cherry trees

Until now, every time the Fighters won the Koshien Bowl, a commemorative cherry tree had been planted on the grounds. But the number of trees has increased to 12, taking up space at the shrine. That is why the monument was errected. In the future, instead of planting a tree, a commemorative plate will be attached to a metal slat on the side of the monument.

However, Kwansei Gakuin University is a Christian university, and a number of team members are said to feel uncomfortable about praying for success and setting up monument at a Shinto shrine.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Masasuke Eda, left, talks with a Buddhist monk during a radio program on FMaiai in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

Eda is also a radio personality at the local station FMaiai, appearing as a guest once a month on a program about Buddhist monks. In the past, he worked for about eight years on a program in which he spoke with Buddhist monks and Christian priests.

“I hope that people will not avoid a different religion, but visit our shrine with the intention of learning about the differences in the religions,” Eda said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A map of The ‘Kifune shrine’ in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.