Japanese-born Gyo Shojima makes history with UCLA

UCLA offensive lineman Gyo Shojima, the first Japansese-born player to appear in a FBS college game, says his martial-arts background "has lived on very well in my football career." AP Photo

LOS ANGELES -- After spending about 15 minutes taking questions from a group of Japanese media members following UCLA’s spring game in April, Gyo Shojima seemed a little confused.

Did they come all the way from Japan just to talk to him?

“Uhhh, I believe so,” he said.

If you’ve never heard of him, Shojima wouldn’t blame you. He hadn’t appeared in a game for the Bruins until Saturday against UNLV when he is believed to have become the first Japansese-born player to appear in a FBS college football game.

“I don’t know if there’s a true way to really figure out if there was a Japanese football player before me,” he said. “But as of what I know, I am the first.”

For Shojima, a preferred walk-on offensive lineman who transferred to UCLA prior to the 2015 season from Santa Monica College, the distinction is an honor, but he gave little -- if any -- thought to his potential contribution to history before it happened.

Shojima was 9 years old when his family moved to the United States from Japan as his father, Tatsuhiro Shojima, started a consulting business. The elder Shojima actually played football for a university in Japan, but the sport didn’t catch Gyo’s interest until after he began high school in Redondo Beach, Calif.

“When I went to high school, I thought, ‘Why not go into a sport that everybody loves?'" he said. “And since my father played in university in Japan, why don’t I play it myself too?”

Until then, Shojima was more focused on martial arts. He is a black belt in Shorinji Kenpo, which is a discipline taught primarily for self-defense and protecting others. Fitting, it seems, for an offensive lineman, and he said there are practical applications from his martial-arts background he uses in football.

“Yeah, the hand fighting,” he said. “Your body language, your body stability -- it all comes from martial arts in terms of my experience, so it has lived on very well in my football career.”

After four years of high school football, Shojima didn’t drum up any interest from a four-year college, but he always harbored the dream of attending UCLA. He thought that by attending junior college nearby, it would help to eventually make that a reality, and, sure enough, it did. He received a call from a personnel staffer at UCLA offering a chance to walk on and, as Shojima puts it, he “didn’t say no.”

He fielded interest from other schools thanks to his continued development in junior college, but the Bruins had been his team since moving to the country.

“Living in [Los Angeles], we either become a fan of UCLA or the other team,” he said. “So I became a UCLA fan. That was my dream school.”

Coincidentally, Shojima isn’t UCLA’s only connection to Japan. Former quarterback Jerry Neuheisel is playing for the Obic Seagulls in the X-League, Japan’s highest level of American football. He recently threw a pair of touchdown passes in the Seagulls’ win against the Njima Sagamihara Rise, which features former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.

Shojima hasn’t been in touch with Neuheisel to discuss his experience playing abroad, but before he left, Neuheisel tried out his self-taught Japanese on Shojima.

“He has a little bit of accent, but it’s expected out of a non-Japanese person,” Shojima said. “So if you take that into account, his sentence structure was actually perfect. I think he’s going to do well.”

Eventually, Shojima could follow Neuheisel’s lead to the X-League, but, for now, he’s content with trying to see the field more for UCLA.