86-year-old Fumie Takino is the leader of Japan Pom Pom, a Tokyo-based group of cheerleaders who are challenging the expectations of elderly life in Japan.
The average age of the group is 70, and once a week they get dressed in short lycra dresses, grab their pom poms and dance.
Japan has an ageing population – which has led an increasing number of the population experiencing kodokushi, a Japanese word used to describe the epidemic of ‘lonely deaths’ in the country.
Fumie and Japan Pom Pom are trying to provide a way for Japanese women to stay active and meet new friends late in life.
In her own words, Fumie tells reporter Dean Cornish how she started the cheerleading group, and her views on ageing.
Japan Pom Pom is a senior cheer dance group. About 20 years ago, we performed for the first time.
Half of the audience were disturbed – ‘look at those old ladies showing off their legs’ – they were really surprised perhaps. All my friends said it was good, but perhaps 50 per cent of the audience or more were disgusted!
All my relatives don't like it, except for my kids. They don't come and I don't invite them, they don't even ask.
They said no to my face. My cousin said it is disgusting. It's bad isn't it?
I needed a lot of courage to keep going as I can see the reaction of the audience.
Nowadays, there are several other small groups, and a senior association was formed. People have become more accustomed to it now. It was hard initially, you know, because Japanese culture wants the old people to be polite.
There is a similar group of older cheerleaders called Sun City Poms, in America. In America and Japan, there was a big difference in acceptance of this kind of thing 20 years ago – nowadays, I suppose, there is more acceptance. But even now when we perform in front of the elderly, they look really stern.
How did you first get interested in cheer leading?
About 21 or 22 years ago when I was reading a book called 'Age Wave' and I found that there was a senior cheerleading group in the US [Sun City Poms]. I was really surprised that senior people can do cheerleading, so I simply thought ‘let's start it in Japan as well’. Then I started it.
We practice from 8AM to 11AM in the morning every Monday. [Our costumes are] sparkly because otherwise it is boring. At first, I found it a bit embarrassing to wear, but the more you get used to it, the flashier you want it to be.
[The first time I did cheerleading] it was just a normal dance, without pom poms in our hands. It was a weekly lesson at the beginning – five of us were doing it. No one remembers anything after a week. I didn't understand why, but I guess we weren't that serious. It was like a group of dementia patients, but as we continued we improved our ability.
Our teacher was young, and she would do more difficult things with every song, so everyone tried to follow her – if the teacher gives up on the students, that is the end.
It is fun to exercise, moving your body and getting sweaty. Doing one thing with your friends is so much fun.
As long as you can dance normally, you’re okay [to join Japan Pom Pom]. Sometimes, some people lack co-ordination. Apart from that there’s nothing; no height requirement. No need to claim you’re good looking.
No requirements except the age. You have to be above 55 years old!
Japan has entered the era of ageing society, so we have a lot of problems.
In Japan, the children are supposed to take care of their parents – in reality, old people are taking care of older people. But a 70 year old cannot take care of someone who is 90 or 100 years old, so they need to go to nursing homes, but we don't have enough of them.
For our generations, being sent to a facility means being abandoned by the children. So the older people are really reluctant and prefer to be taken care of by their children.
Is growing old something that worries you?
I didn't even think about turning 80 at all. I thought I would be dead when I was much younger. Well, there is a Japanese proverb saying the beautiful die early, so I must not be beautiful!
My father was very healthy and had his own business and he may have looked very successful. He died at 85 or 86, but the last 6 months of his life he was bed ridden. He used to say ‘I will enjoy my life until the end’, but the last 6 months he was saying things like ‘my life was nothing’, or ‘am I still alive?’. Having seen him like that I thought I wouldn't want to be like that.
I always tell everyone to start something, no matter how old you are. You shouldn’t think ‘I can't do this’ and all that, because you are old. Just start something, then your life may change – that's what I believe.