Made in Japan: Men’s rhythmic gymnastics

Made in Japan: Men’s rhythmic gymnastics

by Sarah Hodge
Stripes Okinawa
Editor's note: Japanese translation of story at end of English version.
Six gymnasts stand motionless along the edge of the spring floor. The team captain steps forward, raising his arm high over his head with a clipped “hai!” to announce the team is ready. Teammates and fans fervently shout “Faito!” and “Ganba!” (“good luck!”) from the stands as the gymnasts step onto the spring floor and strike their opening poses. As the music begins, the six spring to life in flawlessly synchronized movements before a complicated sequence sees gymnasts tumbling over each other in a series of high-powered flips, handsprings and somersaults. Moments later, a gentler interlude finds the six demonstrating extraordinary flexibility and balance in unison before the tempo picks up to more dramatic tumbling. The audience applauds enthusiastically as various elements are executed up until the group strikes their finishing pose. Triumphant, the gymnasts line up and bow to the audience before clearing the floor for the next group. The entire routine has lasted less than three minutes.
Men’s rhythmic gymnastics (MRG) is a sport invented in Japan nearly 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 with students as young as five up through top universities like Aomori, Hanazono, Kokushikan, and others whose gymnasts regularly dominate competitions.
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 13 individual gymnasts, 17 team gymnasts, and 7 in supporting roles. 70-80% of the team was recruited directly by Kokushikan University RG Coach Mr. Kotaro Yamada on scouting trips across Japan. Many of the Kokushikan gymnasts I spoke to have been performing MRG since their early teens, and lessons learned about teamwork, discipline and empathy readily apply to other areas of life. The students’ dedication to MRG is absolute: in addition to studying a full courseload, their practices can run until late at night.  Although not part of the performance team, several Kokushikan graduate student athletes help coach the school’s junior, high school, and university RG teams. 
Kokushikan’s gymnasts have a unique role as global ambassadors of MRG: they are frequently invited to perform at gymnastics events around Asia, Europe, and the United States. In July 2016, 15 Kokushikan gymnasts traveled to Riccione, Italy to take part in Festival Del Sole (, the largest gymnastics festival in the Mediterranean with over 5,000 international gymnasts participating. 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 9,000 spectators during the four-day festival. Their first time performing in Italy, it was an invaluable opportunity to network and export MRG to international audiences. Kokushikan University RG team will also be performing at next year’s Festival Del Sole and is currently preparing for upcoming MRG competitions in August and October.
Japan is one of very few countries that practices MRG competitively; although there are a handful of MRG gyms and coaches in the United States, Canada, Malaysia, Spain, and Russia, MRG is not currently recognized by gymnastics governing body FIG or the Olympics. As such, there are presently no international MRG competitions, although top-ranked Aomori University performed at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics and top university MRG teams such as Aomori, Hanazono and Kokushikan are regularly invited to perform overseas. After graduation, some gymnasts choose to remain active in the sport by coaching or joining MRG performance groups such as BLUE TOKYO (founded by accomplished Coach Sakae Arakawa of Aomori Yamada High School MRG Team and Coach Yoshimitsu Nakata of Aomori University RG Team) or Cirque du Soleil, which actively recruits top Japanese gymnasts for shows such as Varekai and Michael Jackson One that feature synchronized tumbling.
Social media has greatly helped spread awareness of the sport both here in Japan as well as abroad. Ibara High School in rural Okayama is renowned for its extraordinary MRG team, and their group routines have been viewed over 20 million times on Facebook and YouTube (several Ibara gymnasts now perform with Kokushikan and Hanazono University MRG teams). When other top teams are factored in, MRG videos have been viewed more than 30 million times on social media!
The 70th All-Japan Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships will be held in Chiba on October 27-29. Throughout the year, many smaller youth, high school and collegiate MRG competitions are held around Japan that are free of charge or inexpensive and the atmosphere is lively, fun, and unique – once you’ve attended an MRG competition, you will fall in love with the power, artistry, and synchronization of men’s rhythmic gymnastics.
Please join me in supporting this made-in-Japan original!
This story was made possible with generous support from the following:
Coach Kotaro Yamada, Kokushikan University Men’s Rhythmic Gymnastics Team
Mr. Lorenzo Ascani, Festival del Sole, Riccione
Ms. Ayako Shimizu, GymLove ( sportswriter and photographer 
Check out this video ( for more on the gymnastics team.
男子新体操が競技として行われている国は、日本をはじめ、わずか数カ国にすぎない。アメリカ、カナダ、マレーシア、スペイン、ロシアには若干名の選手とコーチがいるが、男子新体操は現在のところ、体操界を統括する組織であるFIG(国際体操連盟)やオリンピックには認められていない。したがって、青森大学がリオオリンピックの閉会式で演技を披露したり、青森大学や花園大学、国士舘大学などの大学チームが毎年のように海外に招待され演技を行ってはいても、男子新体操の国際試合は行われていないのが現状である。大学卒業後も何らかの形で男子新体操に関わる道を選ぶ選手は決して多くはない。しかし、指導者として競技を続ける者もいれば、荒川栄氏(青森山田高校新体操部監督)と中田吉光氏(青森大学新体操部監督)が創設したBLUE TOKYOや、シルク・ドゥ・ソレイユなどのパフォーマンスグループで活躍する者もいる。シルクは積極的に日本の新体操選手をスカウトしており、「バレカイ」や「マイケルジャクソン・ワン」などのショーではシンクロナイズド・タンブリングが採用されている。
国士舘大学男子新体操部監督 山田小太郎先生
ジムラブ(スポーツライター兼写真家 清水綾子さん

Subscribe to our Stripes Pacific newsletter and receive amazing travel stories, great event info, cultural information, interesting lifestyle articles and more directly in your inbox!

Follow us on social media!

Facebook: Stars and Stripes Pacific
Flipboard: Stars and Stripes Community Sites

Looking to travel while stationed abroad? Check out our other Pacific community sites!
Stripes Japan
Stripes Korea
Stripes Guam

Recommended Content