Interview: With Sarah Hodge About Japan's Men's Rhythmic Gymnastics (MRG)

Kokushikan Men’s RG sophomore Keisuke Tanaka performing his stick routine at 2018 All-Japan Intercollegiate Championships (Photo: Mitsuyoshi Akiyama / Ouen MRG)

You may know today’s guest as “japantravelbug” from social media or read her articles about Japanese papers like Tokyo Weekender. But today we will talk with Sarah Hodge (a.k.a japantravelbug) about a topic she works hard to help people get to know internationally... Men’s rhythmic gymnastics (MRG) 

Sarah Hodge a.k.a. japantravelbug
Burcu: Welcome to my page, Sarah! First, can you introduce yourself to my readers?
Sarah: Hello Burcu, and thank you so much for today’s interview!
Ever since I was a child, I had two goals: to become a writer, and to move to Japan. I’ve been blessed to realize both.

I was always a prolific reader and writer even as a young child. I entered several poetry and writing contests throughout elementary and high school and published short stories and poems as an exchange student at a French university in Canada.
My childhood neighbors across the street and many of my elementary school classmates were Japanese (my city has strong ties to the Japanese automotive industry), which sparked a lifelong interest in all things Japan. I formally studied Japanese language in high school and college and applied to the JET Programme (language teaching exchange) in 2006.
I taught English in Japan for six months in 2010-2011 and have lived here since December 2015 as a full-time English teacher. In my spare time, I frequently travel, take cooking classes, culture experiences including kimono dressing, tea ceremony, and Zen meditation, and publish travel and culture articles for Stars and Stripes newspaper, Tokyo Weekender magazine, JNTO and other websites and blogs.
Burcu: Can you tell us the history of Japan’s  Men’s rhythmic gymnastics (MRG) briefly?
Sarah: Men’s rhythmic gymnastics (MRG, in Japanese 男子新体操) is a sports invented in Japan 70 years ago that combines calisthenics and elements of Swedish, German, and Danish gymnastics. A compulsory RG routine for boys and girls was introduced into Japanese schools in the 1940s to promote fitness. MRG was made an official event at the National Sports Festival held in 1947, and the All-Japan Intercollegiate Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships started in 1949 (All-Japan Inter-High Championships were introduced in 1952).
There are two variations of MRG, individual (where gymnasts perform solo with one of four apparatus) and team, which focuses on tumbling, flexibility, balance, and synchronization. Today there are nearly 2,000 men’s rhythmic gymnasts active in Japan, from junior clubs through university level. It’s also common for brothers in the same family to pursue MRG...there is even a set of identical triplets that all are all rhythmic gymnasts!
It’s important to note that although a handful of other countries including Russia and Spain also practice men’s rhythmic gymnastics, there are significant differences bewteen them and Japanese men’s RG. Also, men’s rhythmic gymnastics is not currently recognized by gymnastics governing body FIG. As such, it is not an officially recognized sport at the Olympics.

Kokushikan Men’s RG senior Takuto Kawahigashi (2019 team captain / 2019 Eastern Inter-College champion / 2019 All-Japan all-around champion ) at Kokushikan’s Tama Festival (Photo: Ouen MRG, November 2019)
Burcu: What are the differences or difficulties between team version and individual MRG? I read in one of your articles that individual men’s rhythmic gymnastics is not as well known as team MRG. What could be the reason for it?
Sarah: Team MRG is better known internationally as several top university teams like Aomori University (Aomori City), Kokushikan University (Tokyo) and Hanazono University (Kyoto) are frequently invited to perform overseas, but there are fewer opportunities for individual gymnasts to perform solo abroad unless they travel / perform with the team. Team routines are performed without apparatus and are based on synchronization and complicated crossovers and tumbling, so more difficult or risky elements can be worth extra points in competitions. This also makes for dramatic edge-of-the-seat moments for spectators as well.
Individual routines feature one of four apparatus: stick, clubs, double rings, and rope.  These apparatus (and resulting performance styles) are different from those used in women’s RG. An individual gymnast has only one minute and thirty seconds for each routine. Individual gymnasts also have creative control over their costumes, choreography, and music. Each gymnast has several unique costumes and coordinating apparatus for their different routines, making it easy to recognize them from the stands. In some cases, a gymnast will wear a teammate’s (or older sibling’s) former costume in tribute.
Many men’s rhythmic gymnasts choose to join performance groups like Cirque du Soleil or BLUE TOKYO after graduation.
Cirque now sends talent scouts to Japan to recruit Japanese men’s rhythmic gymnasts and has created new acts to take advantage of Japanese men’s RG synchronized tumbling skills. In fact, many performers in Cirque Du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE show in Las Vegas (https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/michael-jackson-one) are top MRG talent, including former national champions.
BLUE TOKYO (http://www.bluetokyo.jp) was created by Coach Sakae Arakawa of Aomori Yamada Hıgh School Men’s RG team and Coach Yoshimitsu Nakata of Aomori University RG Team (both alumni of Kokushikan University RG Team) to create opportunities for graduating gymnasts to continue performing. BLUE TOKYO members are alumni of Aomori University MRG Team, the undefeated national MRG champions for the last 18 years. 

The winners of World of Dance Las Vegas in December 2017 




BLUE TOKYO also appeared on top TV show America’s Got Talent in 2018.



Burcu: How have you met Kokushikan University rhythmic gymnastics team? And why you decided to introduce them internationally?
Sarah:. I first met Coach Kotaro Yamada and Kokushikan University RG Team in June 2017; I was invited to the Kokushikan Tama campus by a fellow MRG fan. At that time, there was very little information about Japanese MRG avaialble in English, and I had spent many fruitless hours searching on Google and YouTube without success. Because of this, I felt it was important to publish an up-to-date English-language newspaper article about Japanese Men’s RG with accurate, timely information. We spent the afternoon interviewing the team, which was later turned into a newspaper article distributed widely throughout Japan and online.
Kokushikan Men’s RG Team (Photo: Ouen MRG)

By chance, my new Japanese friends were also interested in promoting MRG in English to increase international visibility of the sport, and I became involved with proofreading MRG video subtitles as well as proofreading and writing English blog articles and reports (including on Kokushikan’s RG’s official page www.kokushikan-rg.com).
My men’s rhythmic gymnast friends have invested so many years of hard work and passion into their sport that the world deserves to know about and appreciate this incredible talent!


Since 2017, I’ve actively promoted Kokushikan as well as other high school and college men’s RG teams like Hanazono University, Aomori University, Aomori Yamada High School and Ibara High School Men’s RG Teams through international outreach on social media. Ibara High School’s extreme flexibliity and awe-inspiring routines (they were national high school champions this year and ranked second nationally) have made them a social media sensation, with their videos viewed over 20 million times around the world! 

Ibara HS MRG Team routine 2019: 


It’s my honor to count many men’s RG coaches and athletes as personal friends. Supporting men’s RG has been one of the highlights of my time here, and the MRG coaches and fans
(especially the gymnasts’ families) have been incredibly welcoming to me as one of the very few foreigners supporting the sport here in Japan.
Burcu: Can you introduce the team of Kokushikan university rhythmic gymnastics team to us?
Sarah: My pleasure! Kokushikan University RG Team is one of Japan’s oldest MRG teams dating to the 1950s, as well as one of the top teams in Japan with 41 gymnasts (16 individual and 16 team gymnasts, with 9 in reserve / supporting roles). Although not part of the performance team, several Kokushikan graduate student athletes help coach the school’s junior, high school, and university RG teams. The gymnasts spend so much time together practicing and performing that they become a closeknit family.
Coach Kotaro Yamada began performing MRG at sixteen during his first year of high school. He was an individual gymnast for four years during college and two years following graduation and became director of Kokushikan University RG Team in 2007.
He personally recruited the members of Kokushikan University RG team on scouting trips around Japan. All of Kokushikan’s gymnasts were rhythmic gymnasts in high school, but many also practiced other sports like judo, soccer, baseball, and track and field.
Under Coach Yamada’s guidance, the team has consistently ranked as one of the top men’s RG teams in Japan. Kokushikan is known for its signature balance pose (one of the required elements in competition) as well as the depth of the stories behind their team routines. A great deal of thought goes into the selection of music, story, and team costumes, and sometimes Kokushikan alumni assist with choreography and creating new routines. Many of the top individual gymnasts in Japan (including this year’s individual high school champion Hiromu Moriya and national all-around champion Takuto Kawahigashi have come from Kokushikan.


A typical rehearsal is from 16:30 to 22:00 on weekdays and 9:00 to 21:00 on weekends. Spring floor time is divided between individual and group teams and between Kokushikan Junior and High School Teams and the university team. Warm-up lasts about an hour for all gymnasts and consists of stretching, strength training and basic gymnastics. 



In high school, some men’s rhythmic gymnasts perform as both individual as well as team gymnasts, but at the elite university level, this is even more challenging due to the grueling class / practice schedule.

Kokushikan Men’s RG sophomore Keisuke Tanaka performing his clubs routine at 2018 All-Japan Intercollegiate Championships (Photo: Mitsuyoshi Akiyama / Ouen MRG)


When you see Kokushikan’s breathtaking, perfectly synchronized performances, what you don’t see are the countless hours of rehearsal and fine-tuning to make these routines a reality. Personally, I find watching rehearsals just as rewarding as seeing the final polished routines.
Your readers can get a good feel for the “behind the scenes” in this two-part English-subtitled OuenMRG Kokushikan documentary filmed shortly before All-Japan National Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships 2018, where the team took second place:

Part 1 (individual gymnasts):


Part 2 (team gymnasts) :






Burcu: How can the readers of this interview and people in Japan support the  Kokushikan university rhythmic gymnastics team?
Sarah: Coach Yamada would like audiences all over the world to see Kokushikan University RG Team perform; the team is frequently invited to perform at overseas events including Festival del Sole (https://www.festivaldelsole.it/)  in Italy, World Gymnastrada and AGG World Championships in Finland, and Paws for a Cause in Atlanta.


According to Coach Yamada, one of the most impressive moments for Kokushikan University RG Team was at Festival del Sole in 2016 and 2018


 

Dubbed “flying samurai” by the local Italian press, Kokushikan’s incredible performances (which utilized long ropes, individual apparatus, tumbling, and balance and flexibility poses) wowed 10,000 spectators during the four-day festival.
In addition to performing overseas, Coach Yamada and the team also offer MRG workshops to international gymnasts and coaches, and he would like to see more MRG programs started overseas.
Their next international performance will be with GymMotion in Germany (https://www.facebook.com/ouenMRG/videos/1142665225935996/)  from Nov. 28-Dec. 7, 2019:





For more details, please refer to the website below:
Upcoming events are published in Japanese on the team’s official website www.kokushikan-rg.com.
Thank you for supporting Japanese men’s rhythmic gymnastics and my friends from Kokushikan University Men’s RG Team!!
Burcu: Thank you for the interview Sarah! Now you can count me as an unofficial supporter of Kokushikan university rhythmic gymnastics team, too ;)
To read Sarah Hodge’s articles and learn more about Kokushikan University Rhythmic Gymnastics team, you can follow japantravelbug social media accounts;
www.myjapaneselife.com
www.instagram.com/japantravelbug
 www.twitter.com/japantravelbug
www.twitter.com/fanmrg(mostly Japanese-language retweets / scores from MRG events)
Kokushikan RG official homepage 
国士舘RG公式ホームページ: www.kokushikan-rg.com

OuenMRG (Japanese men’s RG English-subtitled videos, athlete profiles and competition reports)
www.facebook.com/OuenMRG
www.instagram.com/ouenmrg
Youtube:
https://www.youtube.com/c/OuenMRG
(Special thanks to Coach Kotaro Yamada and Kokushikan University RG Team, Ms. Yuki Julia Ito and Hiromi Matsumoto (translators), and Mitsuyoshi Akiyama / Ouen MRG for the use of team photos and video.)

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