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.