Cheering on an aging Japan

May 31, 2010

When I first heard there was a 78-year old cheerleader in Japan who wears metallic silver wigs and waves gold pom-poms as she jumps and dances in her shiny red sequined costume, it instantly made me curious to find out what kind of person she is.

Japan's cheerleaders.  REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Everyone knows by now that people in Japan live a long time. According to the World Health Organization’s latest life expectancy figures Japanese women remain at number one (life expectancy: 86 years), but I had never heard of an 80-year-old cheerleader.

Fumie Takino’s way of life seemed to be the key.

My first encounter with her was at her gymnasium, which takes her an hour to get to by bus and train. Upon meeting her I was immediately struck by her big smile and how open she was to let me photograph her practice session with her teammates.

Takino started her cheerleading group, “Japan Pom Pom,” 15 years ago and now the members’ average age is 66. The group all looked like typical Japanese seniors until they changed into their practice outfits and danced to a pulsating musical beat, jumping and kicking their legs.

Though the oldest, Takino was as active as the younger members and always seemed cheerful and playful. When I got close to her with my wide lens, she would always jokingly peek-in and make a funny face.

Fumie Takino smiles in Tokyo.  REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

When I interviewed her at her house she unexpectedly prepared a lunch for me. The dining table was filled with western food, including sandwiches, shrimp cocktail, bacon and coca-cola.

It took me by surprise since bacon and Coke isn’t the typical food an 80-year old Japanese woman would eat. I was expecting rice, vegetables and green tea.

Takino gobbled up several sandwiches very quickly and then downed two cans of Coke.

She told me that when she first started cheerleading, her relatives hated her wearing costumes with short skirts because they were embarrassed. “Who cares?“ she replied. “I just love wearing them!”
About growing old she explained, “You can’t avoid getting old. Aging means people deteriorate physically and mentally. But…” she added with a smile, “everyone gets old, so why not just have fun?”

Takino and her cheerleading group often perform at nursing homes and charity events to cheer people up. Takino feels grateful for her health and freedom.

Her fellow cheerleaders tell her that they bet that she can keep on cheerleading until she is 90 years old but Takino says, “that’s going too far,” with a giggle.

But I’m sure that an optimistic, big-hearted and fun-loving person like her can surely continue to be the most senior cheerleader in the longest living country.

Fumie Takino, a 78-year-old cheerleader, practices cheerleading with other members of a seniors' cheerleading group called "Japan Pom Pom" in Tokyo March 24, 2010.   REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao


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