FUKUOKA -- As a group of cheerleaders danced with flamboyance and flexibility, one of them stood out with bold and dynamic moves. It was none other than 23-year-old Takara Yoneoka, the Japanese professional football league's first male cheerleader.
Yoneoka, whose regular job is as a high school substitute teacher, made his cheerleading debut for the J-League's second division team Avispa Fukuoka this season.
On July 25, spectators filed into Best Denki Stadium in the southwestern Japan city of Fukuoka -- Avispa Fukuoka's home turf -- for the first time of the season. Thirteen cheerleaders who had not had a chance to perform due to the novel coronavirus were finally able to put on a show. After Avispa Fukuoka's victory, in the afterglow of the win, Yoneoka wowed the spectators with a series of backward somersaults and other unique moves.
"There were spectators 360 degrees around the pitch. I was nervous but it felt good," Yoneoka said, his face alive with expression.
Yoneoka was born in the southwestern Japan city of Kumamoto. When he was 5, he began performing in the baton-twirling class that his mother ran, and went on to represent Japan in the International Baton Twirling Federation's Grand Prix competition. In the two-baton division, he won silver medals in three tournaments in a row.
At Avispa Fukuoka's home games, the cheer dance team RFC had performed before matches and at halftime, among other appearances. From this season, the soccer club collaborated with RFC to form a team of cheerleaders unique to the club, and they decided to enlist a male cheerleader, wanting to step out in a new direction. Picked for the role was Yoneoka, who had received accolades while representing Japan in baton twirling.
While male cheerleaders have slowly increased in number, Yoneoka felt there was a strong perception that cheerleading was a women's activity. He also lacked experience. The weight of pom-poms used by cheerleaders was different, as was the way they moved them around. And while competitive baton twirlers express a range of emotions, cheerleaders are always expected to smile. It was not easy for Yoneoka to adapt, but he readily accepted the offer and practiced intensively in front of the mirror at home.
"I love dancing. It was an honor to become the first male cheerleader in the J-League," Yoneoka said.
Yoneoka normally works as a substitute health and physical education teacher, but he practices baton twirling every day without a rest. He says there was one more reason why he decided to become a cheerleader in spite of his busy schedule.
According to Yoneoka, there are no professional baton twirlers in Japan -- most baton twirlers join musical or circus troupes where they continue to perform. Baton twirling is often a world whose practitioners give up the activity when they enter adult society.
"I'd like to serve as a guide, to let people know that cheerleading exists as an avenue," he said. "I hope to show people that men can be cheerleaders, too."
While boosting the mood at soccer matches, Yoneoka hopes to open a path for people following behind him -- the driving desire behind his new challenge.
(Japanese original by Yukiko Tange, Kyushu Sports News Group)