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With spectators barred from all but a handful of Tokyo 2020 events and live-viewing areas and fan festivals closed or canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, these Olympics will be bereft of vibrant international exchanges that are commonplace at sporting events around the world.

That hasn’t stopped renowned soccer superfan Hirokazu Tsunoda from carrying out his own mission, clad in homemade samurai armor and carrying banners expressing messages of thanks in over a dozen languages.

Those banners, first created for the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan, were Tsunoda’s way of recognizing the many gestures of support from the international soccer community in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that rocked the northeastern Tohoku region in 2011.

“Soccer fans in Europe and South America created banners expressing their support for Japan, and that was a turning point for me,” Tsunoda told The Japan Times on Wednesday as he prepared to attend a pair of women’s soccer games at Miyagi Stadium in Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture — one of the areas hit hardest by the disaster.

“I saw all of these messages coming from overseas, and it was really surprising because we don’t really have that in Japan.

“So when I learned the U20 Women’s World Cup was happening here, I thought that was our chance. I can’t go everywhere in the world, but I thought that since this was a tournament that people around the world would be watching … we could copy what supporters around the world were doing.”

Japanese fans hold banners thanking foreign counties for their support after the March 11 disaster after the final of the U-20 Women's World Cup on Sept. 8, 2012, at Tokyo's National Stadium. | COURTESY OF HIROKAZU TSUNODA
Japanese fans hold banners thanking foreign counties for their support after the March 11 disaster after the final of the U-20 Women’s World Cup on Sept. 8, 2012, at Tokyo’s National Stadium. | COURTESY OF HIROKAZU TSUNODA

Tsunoda and a volunteer team of about 60 across the country created 11 different banners, coordinating to ensure that each team saw the message — “Thank you for your support; Japan is moving forward with hope” — in their local language.

“We thought we’d start with English, but after March 11 we saw foreign fans writing messages like ‘Ganbare, Nihon’ (‘You can do it, Japan!’) in Japanese even if they didn’t know the language,” Tsunoda said.

“English is a global language, but if you write in their language then they know you’re writing to them. And that’s important when you’re communicating.”

Tsunoda, better known by his nickname “Tsun-san,” began following Japan’s national teams after he saw the passion of fans mourning the 1993 “Agony of Doha,” when the country failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup due to an infamous draw against Iraq.

Inspired by orange-clad Dutch supporters and Australian fans carrying inflatable kangaroos, the 58-year-old created his samurai armor and donned a chonmage (topknot) wig at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — a relative rarity at the time among Japanese sports fans.

“Qualifications for the Olympics or the World Cup are a battle, but once you get there it’s a place for international exchange,” Tsunoda said. “And that’s why other country’s supporters appreciate it when you just wear more than a national team uniform; those events are about exchanging your international identity.”

Despite concerns over anti-Japanese sentiment in China at the time, Tsunoda was a hit, with local fans lining up to take photos. But it was a visit to a baseball game with Naotoshi Yamada, the legendary Olympic superfan who attended every Summer Games from 1964 until his death in 2019, that changed Tsunoda’s understanding of international sporting events.

Tsunoda's homemade samurai armor and chonmage topknot have made him a celebrity at international sporting events. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Tsunoda’s homemade samurai armor and chonmage topknot have made him a celebrity at international sporting events. | DAN ORLOWITZ

“Normally you’d think he’d wave a Japanese flag, right? But instead he got out a Chinese flag,” Tsunoda said of the man known as “Olympic ojiisan” (“Olympic Grandad”).

“Then he started giving out his stickers to all the Chinese fans around him. And after that, when he pulled out his Japanese flag, they applauded. (Yamada) called it ‘an exchange of smiles.’

“After that, whenever I went overseas I would of course go to support Japan, but I would also make signs thanking the local population, give out stickers and happily take photos with other fans no matter how tired I felt.”

But the biggest impact on Tsunoda’s worldview came three years later. At the time, an admitted cynic who thought negatively of those who dedicated their free time to volunteer work, Tsunoda was nevertheless moved by the shocking images of destruction from Tohoku on 3/11.

Upon seeing social media posts written by evacuees who fled without wearing shoes, he loaded 600 pairs from his shoe store in Chiba Prefecture into his car and drove north — the first of what would become more than 100 visits to the region over a decade.

“I always thought people who bragged about volunteering were hypocrites, but … I thought maybe I could be a ‘fake volunteer’ just this once,” Tsunoda said of his trip just 10 days after the disaster, when many areas in the region were still without electricity.

“But there were a lot of people facing difficulties, and I tend to get caught up in the moment so I kept saying ‘I’ll come back, I’ll come back.’”

Since then, Tsunoda has worked to mobilize soccer fans across the country in support of recovery efforts whenever disaster strikes, becoming the leader of an informal group of fans, friends and fellow volunteers known as Chonmage-tai (“Topknot Brigade”).

Domestically, the group’s activities have ranged from collecting relief goods for distribution in affected areas to bringing children affected by natural disasters to soccer games, including the last two World Cups in Brazil and Russia.

Tohoku-area schoolchildren hold up a Spanish-language banner at an international friendly between Japan and Uruguay on Aug. 14, 2013, in Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Tohoku-area schoolchildren hold up a Spanish-language banner at an international friendly between Japan and Uruguay on Aug. 14, 2013, in Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture. | DAN ORLOWITZ

Tsunoda, in addition to holding frequent seminars to educate the public on the state of the Tohoku area, has also traveled to Nepal, delivering tents donated in the wake of a devastating 2015 earthquake, and Ethiopia, where he worked with the J. League’s Vegalta Sendai to distribute soccer equipment to local youth.

While those charitable efforts have drawn attention and support due to his fame, Tsunoda believes it’s the tight-knit community of J. League fans that has become a national asset.

“The J.League has 57 clubs — that’s more clubs than there are prefectures. So when a disaster happens in Kumamoto, fans of Avispa Fukuoka and Kagoshima United will come to help. There’s a supporter network that can help those affected without the government’s assistance,” Tsunoda said.

“I think a lot of people in Japan had negative opinions of volunteerism just as I once did, but in the last 10 years as I’ve carried out my activities, people realized that it’s okay to volunteer, because if the guy in the chonmage can do it so can they.”

Tsunoda’s activities have been limited, but not extinguished, by the pandemic. He’s arranged weekly COVID-19 tests and given up all other nonessential activities in order to continue volunteering in Kumamoto and Tohoku.

After initially “giving up” following Tokyo 2020’s move to forbid most fans, the decision of Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai to open Miyagi Stadium — a demonstration of the prefecture’s recovery over the last decade from the 2011 disaster — offered Tsunoda a chance to express his message to an Olympic audience.

“When I heard the decision (to allow fans), a friend in Sendai asked me if I had any plans. When I told her I didn’t because I didn’t have any tickets, she offered me hers. … It was enough to make me cry,” Tsunoda said.

“I still had all of those banners, and I wanted to share our gratitude with the world. I’m sure I will be criticized for doing this but … if I don’t do it, who will?”

Hirokazu Tsunoda (left) holds up a Dutch-language banner along with Rifu mayor Yutaka Kumagai on Wednesday outside Miyagi Stadium. | COURTESY OF HIROKAZU TSUNODA
Hirokazu Tsunoda (left) holds up a Dutch-language banner along with Rifu mayor Yutaka Kumagai on Wednesday outside Miyagi Stadium. | COURTESY OF HIROKAZU TSUNODA

Tsunoda believes that the heated debates over whether to allow fans at Olympic venues — and whether to hold the event altogether — is a positive sign of growing dialogue among Japanese society.

“In the past, if you were opposed to the Olympics in Japan you were seen as unpatriotic. But everywhere else there are people who protest against the Olympics or the World Cup,” Tsunoda said. “But I think critical opinions are very important, and finally people are able to have debates and state their opinions in Japan.”

Instead of traveling with his usual companions this week, Tsunoda made the journey himself by car, with banners in three new languages added to the ones from 2012. While he initially didn’t know if he would be allowed to display them inside the stadium, security and venue officials eventually relented, allowing them to be hung at the front of the stands where the players — and fans from around the world watching at home — could see them.

“In 2011, when Japan was in crisis, the world came to help us and offer support and nobody has forgotten that,” Tsunoda said. “It’s been 10 years since then, and I’m glad that we can have this chance to express our gratitude, even if it’s through a TV screen or on the internet.

“I want to tell the world that Japan is recovering; there’s a lot that needs to be done, but we’re making progress step by step and I hope they’ll be able to come and see that one day.”

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