Azusa Hashizume is one of a growing number of Japanese cheerleaders busting their moves under the gaze of National Football League (NFL) crowds in the United States. However, she is a relative newcomer, having just marked one year since her audition for the cheer squad of the NFL's Washington Redskins. Hashizume recently spoke with the Mainichi Shimbun about her first season on the squad.
Hashizume was born in Tokyo in 1986, and began classic ballet lessons at a young age. In 2001, she spent a year at a performing arts school in Massachusetts, where she studied ballet and dance. After graduating from a private Tokyo high school, she crossed the Pacific once more, this time to attend Carleton University in Ottawa. After graduating four years later, she returned to Japan and got a job with an electronics maker.
Electronics is a long way from dance, and at 26, Hashizume says she thought to herself, "I love dance, so is there anything I can do where I'd be able to use my dance training?" She began hunting for just such an opportunity, and eventually found the cheerleading squads for teams belonging to X League, Japan's American football league, on these teams' websites.
Hashizume tried out, and won a spot in the cheerleading squad for the Big Blue American football team of IBM Japan.
In her third year of cheerleading, she took a trip to San Francisco, and while she was there took in the 49ers' final home game of the season. She also got to see Big Blue alumni dancing with the NFL team's Gold Rush cheerleading squad.
"It was amazing to see them (the cheerleaders) get every fan in a packed stadium really excited," she says. From that moment on, Hashizume decided she would try to make it onto an NFL squad herself.
In 2015, she made it to the final tryout stage for one team, but didn't quite make the cut. In 2016, she auditioned for a spot with the Washington Redskins, and made it. She hooked up with the full squad in May that year to start a training session ahead of the start of the NFL season in the autumn.
An NFL team's regular season is 16 games long, and cheerleaders only appear at their team's home games. As such, cheerleaders only get to show off their moves on-field 10 times a year, including pre-season games. If a team makes it into the playoffs, then of course there are more games and more chances to cheer. Washington, however, lost its final game of the regular season and fell short of the playoffs. And so Hashizume's first year as an NFL cheerleader came to an end.
"Looking back after it's over, it feels like it lasted only a moment. But it was a highly concentrated, really intense year," Hashizume tells the Mainichi.
She added that, while cheering for Washington, she came to understand how deeply the locals loved their team. For home games, some 80,000 Washington fans would cram into FedEx Field stadium. They would all sing a traditional fight song when the home team scored a touchdown, and when the other team was on the attack, they would turn so noisy -- a gambit to distract the opposition -- it was impossible to hear even the person next to you. Hashizume says that being in that place, cheering with those throngs of passionate fans, meeting and spurring on their excitement, was an irreplaceable experience.
Hashizume also had plenty of opportunities to meet and interact with the fan base, as cheerleaders were required to join at least 20 public events during the year. She visited local schools and retirement homes, taught kids some of her cheerleading moves and tried to raise the spirits of the elderly. Through these appearances, Hashizume says she truly understood that cheerleading wasn't just about performing, but about the importance of communication skills.
During one visit to a junior high school, Hashizume gave a speech in front of about 300 students about what makes for good interpersonal connections, and what makes a good person. As a non-native English speaker, she had a serious case of nerves about the talk. "But following the phrase 'push the limit,' I decided not to think, 'This is impossible. I can't do this.' I focussed on getting one step beyond that moment, and expanded my communication skills in the process," she says.
Hashizume says one of the things that made the biggest impression on her was the cheerleading team's one-week visit to a U.S. military base in Bahrain. There, she met many U.S. troops who had at one time been posted to Japan, as well as Japanese spouses of U.S. personnel, so she got to reminisce about Japan quite a bit during her stay in the Persian Gulf nation.
Hashizume will audition for the Redskins' cheerleading squad again this spring, saying she has "fallen in love" with both the team and cheerleading itself. She is ready to head into the next NFL season with fellow cheerleaders she respects and football players she adores, she says.