Most Magical Gym on Earth

The drone of cicadas fills the air as we make our way through a nearly silent campus lush with summer foliage. As we enter the gym used for men’s and women’s rhythmic gymnastics, college gymnasts are doing assisted stretching and helping each other to warm up…

Kokushikan University Tama Campus

Two years ago, I visited Kokushikan Tama Sports Campus for the first time and had the opportunity to meet the Kokushikan group and individual gymnasts. They were boisterous, funny, and more than happy to indulge a novice MRG fan / fledgling journalist’s curiosity (these interviews provided the foundation for articles for Metropolis Magazine and Pacific Stars and Stripes articles in English and Japanese). As one of a very few foreign MRG fans in Japan, I’ve been blessed to receive a warm welcome from some of Japan’s top high school and college coaches, fellow fans, and MRG parents.

Yuhei Ishikawa and Sarah

In the following two years, I’ve done my best to distribute English-language information about Japanese men’s rhythmic gymnastics by writing articles, sharing English-subtitled videos and posts with various SNS (social media) groups and pages and assisting with proofreading for MRG videos and English articles on Kokushikan RG Team’s website. (Unfortunately due to my full-time job, travel, and writing obligations, I have been unable to attend any further MRG practices or competitions in person since All-Japan in 2017.)

On this day, Kokushikan individual gymnasts were rehearsing for the upcoming All-Japan Inter-College competition. (For men’s RG, first gymnasts compete in regional competitions before competing at the national level by category (All-Japan Inter-High, which was just held in Kagoshima, Kyushu last week, and All-Japan Inter-College), and finally the top gymnasts and teams go on to compete at the All-Japan National Championships in late October. It is every gymnast’s dream to be crowned All-Japan champion during his career.

Kaede Iwata

Kokushikan’s gym instantly felt familiar and welcoming. There was a crackle of electricity in the air as this was no ordinary practice, but intense fine-tuning and self-critique to improve weak points prior to the All-Japan Inter-College competition. I had previously met / interviewed some of the same gymnasts in 2017, while others were new additions (Keisuke Tanaka, whom I previously wrote about here: ), is now an individual gymnast at Kokushikan). We also interviewed the All-Japan Inter-High winner, Hiromu Moriya, and had the chance to watch his stick and ring routines (Hiromu’s mom and Yuhei Ishikawa’s mom were also in attendance at today’s practice).

Up first were the Kokushikan Junior team members (some of them started MRG as young as five). The apparatus for juniors is slightly smaller in size than that of older students (according to Coach Yamada, junior sticks are about 70 cm (90 cm full-size), and rings are 35 cm diameter in place of 45 cm diameter). Despite their small size, the junior gymnasts made up for it with enthusiasm.

Next, the Kokushikan individual gymnasts took the spring floor. For today’s rehearsals, they changed into their costumes and ran through their stick and ring routines individually. Gymnasts who were not performing sat at a table and scored using score sheets similar to those used by competition judges based on the various elements (men’s RG is scored based on execution (10 points) and difficulty (10 points) for a maximum possible score of 20 points, with deductions made for missing elements, broken or dropped apparatus, low throws, etc.).

Ryunosuke Tanimoto and Sarah

Each individual gymnast’s costume and apparatus is uniquely his; the design makes it easy to visually identify a gymnast from the stands. A gymnast may have several costume changes depending on the routine (some gymnasts have a separate costume for each apparatus) and may continue to use the same costumes for a number of years (one gymnast I spoke to had used the same costume for at least five years since high school). In a curious contrast to the seemingly skimpy costumes of women’s RG, men’s RG costumes are full-coverage from the neck to wrists to ankles.

The beautiful designs are reminiscent of men’s figure skating costumes, embellished with sequins, lace, and sometimes thousands of crystals that are hand-sewn to withstand the dramatic forces of tumbling. In some cases, a gymnast’s mother may design his costumes, or some use professional designers. Today’s designs included several gymnasts with striking red, black and silver themes, while others called to mind organic vines and leaves, flowers (roses were popular), or bursts of glittering fireworks. Gymnasts also customize their apparatus using metallic tape, glitter, and spray paint to make them easily identifiable (particularly for rings, which are tossed high into the air; a gymnast may use the markings to help him spot / catch).

Gymnasts use every part of their body as well as their apparatus to emote, and men’s RG is as much performance art and dance as it is floor gymnastics. Individual gymnasts in particular include a great variety of beautiful opening and closing poses, hand gestures, and beautiful lines to express emotion, along with their song choices (a recent rule change finally allowed men’s RG to use songs with vocals / lyrics).

Although the gymnasts make the routines seem effortless (they seem to practically float across the spring floor), it was a bit shocking to see them near collapse at the end of individual routines (which can be up to one minute thirty seconds) after approaching the “judges,” Coach Yamada, and visitors and bowing to each group individually thanking them, sometimes gasping for breath as they did so. (Japanese summers are notoriously hot and brutal; heatstroke is a real danger for young Japanese athletes as many school gymnasiums are not air-conditioned).

Teammates would quickly help them unzip the back of their uniform tops (which trap body heat), and the previous performer would take to the sidelines to do stretches, rehydrate, and cheer on the next performing teammate while catching their breath for the next routine.

In between routines as the judges were scoring, I had the chance to ask questions of some of the gymnasts, who were kind enough to take time to answer. One of my burning questions for the Ibara gymnasts at Kokushikan (Ibara High just won All-Japan Inter-High in a stunning return to glory) was how they achieve their extraordinary flexibility (men’s rhythmic gymnasts already have a great range of flexibility, but Ibara spectacularly so).

Motonari Asao (He was a member of Ibara High School RG team)

I had the chance to talk to Keisuke Tanaka about stick technique. It was fascinating watching him as he seemed to be executing complicated mills unconsciously while walking around. I was curious about some of the moves I saw gymnasts do, including one where they roll the stick down the back of one arm, across the top of the shoulders, across the opposite arm, and then effortlessly catch it with the opposite hand. Gymnasts are given additional points for more difficult moves. Keisuke mentioned that for stick, it is all about careful control of the rotation speed. I also had the precious opportunity to take photos with several of the individual gymnasts including Hiromu Moriya, Takuto Kawahigashi, Yuhei Ishikawa and Ryunosuke Tanimoto, something which I didn’t get to do on my previous visit to Kokushikan or at All-Japan in 2017.

In all, we spent about five hours watching the individual gymnasts run through their routines. It was magical to be back in Kokushikan’s gym and spend time together as I often think of my friends and watch their performances online. Kokushikan gymnasts are frequently invited overseas to participate in festivals, gymnastics events, and to conduct workshops, and they are fantastic overseas ambassadors for Japanese Men’s RG.

Takuto Kawahigashi, 2019 All Eastern Inter-College champion

I am wishing my friends at Kokushikan error-free and injury-free performances at All-Japan Inter-College and All-Japan finals, I will be cheering for you!

(A huge thank you to Coach Yamada and Ms. Hiromi Matsumoto for coordinating / allowing me to sit in on today’s practice, ありがとうございました)


Sarah and Hiromu Moriya (Kokushikan High School)



2年前、私は国士舘大学の多摩キャンパスを初めて訪問し、国士舘大学の団体・個人の選手たちに会う機会を持った。彼らは陽気で明るく、新米の男子新体操ファンのわがままを聞き、ジャーナリストとしてまだよちよち歩きだった私の好奇心に応えてくれた(この時のインタビューは、Metropolis MagazinePacific Stars and Stripesの記事のもとになった)。日本に住む外国人の男子新体操ファンは珍しいためか、高校や大学の強豪チームの指導者や保護者、ファンの皆さんは、私を非常にあたたかく歓迎してくださる。