Japanese Packers fans' passion pays off with game invite and documentary
GREEN BAY – When Ty Morse walked into a restaurant in Tokyo, he was surprised to see a Japanese man wearing a Brett Favre jersey. That was only the beginning.
In due course, and after a little sign language, he discovered the man had friends there and each of them was wearing a Packers jersey. A Wisconsin native, Morse had stumbled onto the Japanese Packers Cheering Team, and they had stumbled onto a new documentary filmmaker who intends to make them the stars of one of his projects.
The fans come from around Japan for an annual bash in Tokyo arranged by Takashi “Cheppo” Kawarazaki, who became a Packers fan in 1993.
"They were very excited because I'm from Wisconsin," Morse said. "I asked them if they had ever been to a game? They said 'no.' It continued to snowball."
Morse arranged for 25 members of the group to attend the game against the Cincinnati Bengals Sept. 24 at Lambeau Field. It will be the first time to Lambeau for nearly all of them and the first time to the United States as well.
Kawarazaki said the decision to accept Morse's invitation was immediate.
"Even if I didn’t meet Ty, I would have tried to visit Lambeau," he said. "As he says so, I think it’s a kind of miracle."
The Japanese fans will spend four days in Green Bay. They'll stay at the homes of three of Morse's friends, ride the Zippin Pippin, tailgate, visit other sites and, of course, go to the game to cheer on their beloved Packers.
"They know every player. They are crazy, crazy Packers fans," Morse said.
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As Kawarazaki explains it, he first saw the Packers in 1993 on NHK, Japan's national public broadcasting channel. The broadcasters said Green Bay was an important NFL team, winning the first two Super Bowls, but had fallen on hard times in recent years. They said the Packers had a young quarterback named Brett Favre and could return to the playoffs.
"After seeing Favre's play of that game, I thought that 'I will support them,' " Kawarazaki said.
The Packers did return to the playoffs and won a wildcard game. Kawarazaki was hooked.
He found a Japanese website called "Packer Zone" which deepened his knowledge and love of the team, and helped him connect with other Japanese Packers fans.
Initially, he was attracted by the quarterbacks, but "simply now I love the staff, the players and the fans. No Packers, no life!" he said.
The annual Packers parties were started four years ago, with "Packer Zone" readers making up the bulk of attendees.
A few members of the club have been to Lambeau, but most have not. Kawarazaki attended the opening game of the 2000 season at Lambeau Field — the Packers lost 20-16 to the New York Jets — and he looks forward to introducing others to the experience.
"I think they are looking forward (to Morse's plan). But the biggest factor is the experience of watching a Packers victory in Lambeau," he said.
Morse is an owner of Time Horse Productions, a documentary filmmaking company based in Chicago, and Songwhale, a Minneapolis-based interactive technology company that does a lot of business in Asia. One of the producers on the Japanese film is Jay DeMerit, a former professional soccer player and Bay Port High School graduate, and Morse's partners in Time Horse are former PBS producers.
The project is no small thing. It will require translators – only three of the fans speak some English – transportation, housing, caterers and the cooperation of the Packers and NFL Films.
"The Packers enjoy tremendous international fan support. We meet couples and families from all over the world every game weekend," said Aaron Popkey, Packers director of public affairs. "It's been fun to learn about the large fan-group coming from Japan. We're looking forward to their reaction upon seeing Lambeau Field for the first time."
Time Horse started a Kickstarter campaign for the film, but Morse said that was as much about getting the word out as collecting money, though they'll be happy to do that, too. Donors can get coffee mugs, T-shirts and more promoting the film.
"This is not a money-making venture. This is a passion project," Morse said. "Kickstarter is not necessary to the project. We wanted a place where people could participate in the buildup."
Filmmakers initially considered a Netflix/iTunes/Amazon launch, but now are leaning toward ESPN. The pinnacle would be acceptance by the network's "30 for 30" documentary series. They'll also be submitting the finished product to global film festivals, such as South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.