Japan university cheer squads struggling to survive

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Members of Kokugakuin University’s cheer squad encourage runners in the Tokyo-Hakone Intercollegiate Ekiden in Tokyo on Jan. 3.

University cheer squads are in a battle for survival.

Traditionally, such groups offer encouragement to students taking part in sporting and other events, and usually comprise enthusiastic, school uniform-clad young men, who offer their support in loud and brazen terms. Now, however, these boisterous batteries are facing their greatest ever crisis since first emerging during the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Recently, university students have been shying away from cheer squads due to the intense coaching and rigorous training such groups undergo. There also have been growing calls to suspend the activities of the cheer squads due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

However, in a somewhat unorthodox bid for survival, 36 cheer squads at universities across the nation have joined forces with the aim of registering themselves as a national intangible cultural asset.

Ekiden enthusiasm

For the first time in three years, roadside cheer groups were allowed to encourage runners competing in the Tokyo-Hakone Intercollegiate Ekiden — an annual long-distance relay race — held Jan. 2-3. Face masks were compulsory and a limit was set on the cheering volume, but the groups affiliated with each participating university egged their athletes on as brass bands sounded in the background.

Kokugakuin University finished fourth this year. The leader of their cheer squad, Shunta Oda, 22, a senior at the university, said: “We cheered on our runners to the very end using all our might. The Tokyo-Hakone ekiden is a special stage for us.”

Tomohiro Kaneko, 20, a sophomore at Kokugakuin University and a cheer squad member, stated, “Using know-how handed down from my seniors, I’m keen to carry on ekiden cheering activities and further polish my performance.”

University cheer squads are thought to have originated at high schools in the former school system during the Meiji era. Viewed as somewhat rough and uncouth, they nevertheless played a major role in support-related activities for various events.

However, unlike colorful cheerleader dance squads and brass bands, the staid university cheer squads have come under fire for their strict training method, going so far as to synchronize the movement of their fingertips. Some clamorous collectives have been forced to disband over their incidents of physical abuse related to over-zealous guidance.

According to a research association on university cheer squads — primarily established by squad alumni — such groups have been decreasing in number since the end of the Showa era (1926-1989). More than 10 teams called it a day during the period from 2000 to 2015.

There are currently around 50 cheer squads in the nation, but the pandemic has made it increasingly difficult to continue, according to the association. For example, group practice sessions could not be held for fear of spreading COVID-19 infections. Furthermore, a long succession of sporting events have been cancelled. The pandemic has exacerbated the number of cheer squads shutting up shop.

Jun Tochimoto, 40, the director of Kokugakuin University’s cheering squad, said, “More than a few squad members have dropped out because the group’s raison d’etre was undermined and they didn’t think it was worthwhile to continue.”

Women take the lead

Nevertheless, efforts continue to pass on the support-team tradition to the next generation. In November, a festival featuring university cheer squads was held in Tokyo. The 23 participating university groups delighted the audience with their vigorous performances.

Until recently, women were barred from joining university cheer groups, but they now play an increasingly active role in the athlete-inspiring organizations. About half the groups at the festival had female members, and women lead the cheer squads of Aoyama Gakuin University and Tokai University.

In the final stage of the festival, the cheer squads of 36 national, public and private universities from across the nation declared that their activities are inherent to Japan and pledged to protect the cheer squad culture and pass it to subsequent generations.

The teams have also formulated a collective policy to urge the Cultural Affairs Agency and other government organs to register university cheer squads as a national intangible cultural asset under a 2021 system established to certify a wider range of cultural affairs — to date, calligraphy and traditional sake brewing, have been registered in the system.

“The key element in the registration process will be whether the [cheer squads] can present evidence of concrete historical and artistic values,” an agency official said.

Kunihiro Seto, 50, an associate professor of sports culture at Tottori University, said: “As seen in the world of baseball, cheer squads have been essential to the development of the modern sports culture in Japan. [The registration idea] is an opportunity to reconsider the cultural meaning of cheer squads.”