Meet the fans who are ‘keeping figure skating alive’
Wherever an important international figure skating competition is held anywhere on the planet, you’ll find the Rising Sun cheering section, hundreds of female fans bearing flags and handmade banners and stuffed animals and flowers and cameras.
This week, when the World Championships are staged in Boston for the first time, Japan’s fervent followers will be flocking to TD Garden, rooting on idols Yuzuru Hanyu, Mao Asada, and any foreigner who captures their fancy.
At a time when skating is struggling to regain its popularity in the United States, the sport is booming in Japan, where competitions and exhibitions sell out quickly.
“It’s like trying to get Adele tickets,” said Ross Miner, who represents the Skating Club of Boston and performs frequently in Japan. “You have to be on top of it from the very beginning.”
Many Japanese fans find it easier to travel overseas for their skating fix, happily spending several thousand dollars for tour packages.
“It’s keeping figure skating alive right now,” said Brian Orser, the former world champion and Olympic medalist who coaches Hanyu in Toronto.
This season, the Rising Sun cheering section showed up at Grand Prix events in China, Russia, France, Spain, Canada, and the United States, as well as at the Four Continents Championships in Taipei.
As soon as seats for the 2016 Worlds went on sale in November 2014, Japanese fans began snapping them up.
“They began buying tickets from Day 1,” said Skating Club executive director Doug Zeghibe, who estimates that the Japanese represent 12 percent of non-US ticket buyers and 8 percent overall. “They were right there.”
H.I.S., the international travel company that runs 10 skating tours a year, estimates that 100 fans bought $4,500 packages that include airfare, rooms, and airport transfers. So local event organizers have made security arrangements to ensure that the Japanese stars can make their way from the lobby to the bus and also have privacy on their hotel floor.
“We want to create not only a safe space but a quiet space for them,” said Zeghibe.
While Japan’s skaters have been competing globally since 1932, they didn’t become national figures until Midori Ito won the women’s world title in 1989. But during the last decade, as competitors such as Shizuka Arakawa, Miki Ando, Daisuke Takahashi, Asada, and Hanyu have topped the podium, they’ve achieved rock-star status.
“The sport’s popularity is at an all-time high,” said Jack Gallagher of the Japan Times, who writes an “Ice Time” column. “The skating shows are always sold out with a $250 top ticket no matter where they’re held.”
Japan’s first superstar of the boom era was Asada, who was a celebrity at 14 and since has won three world titles.
“Mao really captured the imagination of the public,” said Byron Allen, a senior vice president at IMG, which runs a minimum of 10 skating events a year in Japan.
The paragon now is the 21-year-old Hanyu, who was the country’s first Olympic men’s champion when he won two years ago and became the youngest victor since Dick Button in 1948.
“He’s a national hero, without question,” said Gallagher. “A lot of people see him as a symbol for this millennium. He is revered.”
Hanyu, who’ll play 18th-century samurai lord Date Shigemura in an upcoming film, wrote his autobiography (“Blue Flames”) at 17. When he returned from Sochi with his gold medal, nearly 100,000 people turned out for his parade in his hometown of Sendai. Whenever his name pops up online, the Twitterverse erupts.
“Hanyu is certainly Numero Uno,” said Mickey Brown, editor of the website icenetwork. “If we mention his name or use an image of him, it just takes off through the roof. The retweets and ‘likes’ are in the hundreds. It doesn’t even have to be anything particularly revealing or be breaking news.”
What sets Japanese fans apart from their counterparts elsewhere is not only their obsession with their sequined stars but also their technical savvy.
“They know skating,” said Miner. “They have a serious appreciation and understanding that’s strange for a sport that takes a lot to learn.”
Their appreciation extends to any talented performer, regardless of nationality.
“When we go to Japan, it feels like we’re skating at home,” said American ice dancer Alex Shibutani, who with sister Maia is expected to make the medal stand this week. “The positive energy radiates on the ice.”
From Tokyo to Osaka, Nagano to Nagoya, Saitama to Sapporo, the stands usually are full and the welcome invariably is warm, with spectators often bringing multiple flags with them to show individual support.
Japanese fans crave a personal connection with their favorites, waiting in hotel lobbies in hopes of a glimpse, an autograph, a photo, and a brief chat.
“Fans like to talk to me in English because it gives them an opportunity to practice,” said Mirai Nagasu, the former US champion and Olympian whose parents are Japanese emigres.
They also give her “omamori,” brocaded pouches with good-luck talismans that fans also leave at religious shrines.
“They pray for skaters,” said Nagasu, who’ll be competing at the Garden. “They’re very sweet and considerate.”
Small yet elaborate gifts are part of the ritual. Miner, whose blond hair and blue eyes make him an intriguing novelty in Japan, has received 1,000 handmade paper cranes and golf balls stamped with a cartoon version of himself.
The Japanese skaters themselves feel a cultural imperative to complete the connection with their supporters. Whenever Hanyu performs, the ice is littered with stuffed Winnie the Pooh bears and other keepsakes.
“You go backstage and there are bags and bags and bags,” said Orser. “Yuzu’s parents and sister and agent go through every single bag and separate all the flowers and gifts and cards and they send something back.”
Hanyu, whose fans call themselves “Yuzurists,” may be the icon of the moment but the Japanese fans also know everyone in the domestic pipeline, from Marin Honda to Sota Yamamoto to Wakaba Higuchi. Fuji TV sent a crew to Salt Lake City just to chronicle Shoma Uno, the rising men’s star who’ll be competing in the Garden.
“They know about these kids from the first time they taste success,” said Allen.
When icenetwork posted photos of the four Japanese skaters who’d be competing in this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final, the mention prompted 370 retweets.
“It even goes down to that level,” said Brown. “The fans are that fervent.”
The question is how long skating can remain at its fever pitch in Nippon. Sumo, once the country’s cultural touchstone, didn’t make the top five when Tokyo residents were polled about their favorite sports three years ago.
“Having seen the golden goose killed in the United States, you worry about that,” said Allen. “But it hasn’t happened to date.”