When I began studying Japanese, I felt at odds with the common term “ganbatte” (written in Japanese as 頑張って). Often translated as “do your best,” Japanese speakers use it in the same way as North Americans use the term “good luck.” For example:

“I have a test tomorrow.”


But that’s a lot of pressure. Of course, I’ll “do my best.” Yet, should I fail, I'd like to have a natural, ego-saving excuse at the ready. “It was a bad draw.” “I was unlucky." "My teacher is out to get me." I'm not prepared to admit that, in lieu of studying, it was probably a bad idea to stay up till 4:00 am eating nachos.

It took several years for me to realize the real power of the term. “Ganbatte,” sometimes conjugated as “ganbare” (頑張れ), is not a bludgeon for pushing people beyond their limits, as I initially supposed. Instead, it’s an inspirational term, a ready-made phrase to rekindle the fire in your belly, to rally the passions. From the right person, and at the right time, its utterance is remarkably compelling:

“I’m exhausted. There’s no way I can make through the day.”

“Yes, you can. And you know you can. Ganbatte!”

With the right encouragement, it's possible to dig deeper.

Ōendan: Rallying Teams in Japan

Traditionally, Japan has its own style of cheerleading. Known as ōendan (応援団), rallying teams, these squads lead power-driven, megaphone-amplified, battle cries against opposing teams. Traditionally led by the beat of taiko, Japanese drums, highly choreographed routines incorporate power-poses and kata-esque martial arts movements. They are common sites at undōkai (運動会), school sports day festivals, and other sporting events. “Ganbare!”

As you can see, the performances are remarkably different from North American pep rallies. There is something that can only be described as summoning power—or at least motivation. In rhythm with the thunderous beat of large taiko drums, performers involve their entire body into the performances.

Commonly, the group leader, an esteemed position, bellows extended cries while supporters flex in the background. Indeed, war-like drumming drives the message home: “Our team is here to win.”

What Makes a Rally Squad Rally?

There are three essential elements of an ōendan.

The most conspicuous one is the taiko. A term indicating a wide range of percussion instruments, heavier and lower-pitched versions are most common in ōendan. They are often played standing, lending them a resonant boom that can be leveraged to potent effect.

Gakuran (学ラン), on the other hand, are uniforms associated with students and rally groups. They are high-collared and black. Although variations are not uncommon, these traditional uniforms exude seriousness. And look painfully hot. I, myself, can't imagine wearing one during a summer festival.

Most important is the furitsuke (振り付け), the choreography essential to ōendan performances. Often acrobatic, they are highly organized full-bodied power-poses meant to motivate team members. These maneuvers are lightning-fast and abbreviated. According to some, the syncopated and abrupt cessation of actions is what gives ōendan routines their punch.

It’s also worth noting that, while rally club members change, groups are incorporating pom-pom girls into their cheer stylings. Sometimes this is a natural fit; other times, it seems a bit forced.

Changing Times and the Changing Face of Oendan

Pom-pom girls in cheer groups, however, speak to an underlying trend. Like many things in Japan, rally groups have been traditionally dominated by men. However, as seen with many of the current ōendan, that is beginning to change.

The Japan Times recently reported that numerous schools are experiencing sharp declines in their cheer clubs. Young men are losing interest. Clubs were forced to react. They began accepting female students, and participation rates quickly recovered.

One female group leader interviewed in the piece remarked: "Compared with other schools (with male members), we can't shout in a deep voice, and our fist pump performance may not look as powerful. Yet, there are things that only we can do.”

She probably needn’t worry. Many who follow female ōendan groups on social media are quick to express support:

  • “Female-only ōendan groups used to be rare, but these days women are better cheerleaders then men.”
  • “What’s this, it’s really cool.”
  • “All-girl 'cheer' groups are not only chic, but they are also serious ōendan. It's a good trend."
  • “The gleeful tears of (our) girls ōendan group were so beautiful to behold.”
  • “(Our) girls ōendan group is awesome. It must be tough to cheer in those uniforms under the blazing sun.”

To understand what they're talking about, see this NHK piece:

As more women join ōendan clubs, more of them are becoming group leaders. For good measure, here is a boys group whose leader is female:


Japan is a traditional society that is typically slow to change. Nevertheless, as society evolves, its residents are forced to adapt in new ways. While change always has its detractors, it's refreshing to see young people revitalizing traditional art and making it their own.

The new and the old often coexist in Japanese society. In the case of school cheer squads, this means female leadership is usurping male roles in this traditional art form. With several female empowerment issues making headlines the past few years, perhaps this welcome change will have widespread positive effects.

By - Luke Mahoney.

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