There have been many Japanese-born cheerleaders in the NFL. But Tomoko Kojima has arguably reached the highest point among them, mainly because she’s been there longer than anyone and has truly been accepted as a core member.

But it took a while to build that status. Kojima, who has been on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ cheerleading team for six years, said that she felt she was “the frog in the well who does not know the ocean,” for the first few years.

Her first season back in 2003 was an especially tough period, she recalled.

“I was 25 back then,” Kojima said in a Tampa hotel on Jan. 31, the night before Super Bowl XLIII. “I had already built some sort of confidence as I’d graduated from college (Ritsumeikan University of Kyoto) and worked at a bank. But I came over here, and everything I had was destroyed. Simply, I didn’t have the (English) language and was like a 25-year-old baby. I couldn’t do anything without someone’s help. It was a pity.”

Yet she turned the frustration into positive energy, rather than depression. Kojima pushed herself on things including the language issue, and eventually her teammates and coaches began to embrace her after a trying first year.

“I was treated like, ‘Tomoko is special’ ” Kojima said. “I didn’t like it. I wanted to be treated like an American, like everyone else.”

Now she occasionally has to be responsible for negotiating with some of the people who run promotional events related to the Bucs and NFL as a daily captain when the cheerleaders participate in off-field charities and activities. In other words, she has to meet with those business people as a representative of the whole squad.

“I’ve had to be careful about my English and attitude, thinking what’s best for the team,” she said.

Meanwhile, Kojima is as pleased to reside in Tampa, as much as she likes to work for the Buccaneers saying that she can’t think of moving to another town or another NFL team.

“As a town, it’s not too big and it’s not too small, either,” the Osaka native said. “The weather is nice and there is a Latin-like atmosphere of South America. Since there are so many of them that have come from overseas here, I was kindly accepted, too.

“And we have great sunsets and blue ocean here, and I was so healed by those things when I first got here and was going through tough times.”

And Kojima said that the Bucs organization is like a “family” and feels the place is almost her “second home.”

“My teammates, coaches, the organization and its employees — they all are nice to me, and I have no intention to leave here.”

However, NFL cheerleaders are committed to just one year and if she doesn’t pass another audition for the next season, there’ll no longer be a place for Kojima on the team.

Kojima confessed that she has always been threatened by the anxiety of not getting through a trial.

“In my first year, I didn’t know what we’d do at all, and there was nothing to lose but great expectations,” said Kojima, who home-stays with an American family and teaches Japanese to their three-year-old boy on her spare time.

“But as I’ve got experienced, grown up and loved the team, I’ve got more and bigger things to lose. While I’ve gained confidence, I’ve been gaining bigger worries.”

Kojima, who explained that normally one leaves the cheerleading team after a few years, called the city of Tampa a “destined place” for so many reasons, and after six years the love appears to be growing bigger and bigger.

“I’d like to do this for one more year or two, maybe until they say they don’t want me back,” she laughed, asked how much longer she wants to continue the job. “I’d like to exert myself to the utmost.”

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