70th All-Japan Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships written by Sarah Hodge

Over the past five months, I’ve become deeply involved in supporting and spreading men’s rhythmic gymnastics, a sport born here in Japan 70 years ago that that combines calisthenics and elements of Swedish, German, and Danish gymnastics. Today there are nearly 2,000 men’s rhythmic gymnasts active in Japan; however, the sport has a much smaller presence than women’s rhythmic gymnastics, which is a recognized Olympic discipline, and the fanbase is largely limited to Japan, one of a very few countries where MRG is practiced competitively.

In May 2017, I attended my first MRG event, Sasaki Cup, in Tokyo (you can read my impressions here. As a fairly new fan to MRG, I was at first stymied by the utter lack of resources in English about the sport. Luckily, through the efforts of fellow dedicated fans, more and more MRG videos and articles are being uploaded in English, making it much easier to share the sport with fans in Europe, Canada, and the United States.

Earlier this year, with the assistance of several prominent figures in MRG, I published two articles on MRG for two English-language newspapers and magazines in Japan with wide online distribution. The few English articles I’d found on MRG were several years old, so I felt it was of the utmost importance for new fans to have access to accurate, timely information on MRG. The articles were also translated into Japanese with the hopes of recruiting new fans within Japan as well. I’ve been very active in reaching out to new MRG fans through various online platforms and lending my support however I can.

Left: Masaki Suga
Right: Hayami Yumita

For months, I’d dreamed of attending All-Japan, of finally seeing some of my MRG idols (especially seniors Naoya Nagai of Aomori University and Kohei Ogawa of Hanazono) perform, of seeing the legendary Aomori University Men’s RG team, of reuniting with old friends and meeting new ones. Due to geographical distance (I live in southern Kanagawa) and my work schedule (I teach full-time and freelance for two English-language publications in Tokyo), unfortunately I am not able to attend the majority of competitions. However, I have tried to encourage and support my gymnast friends, coaches, teams and parents by leaving messages on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) before and after competitions. So it was my great honor to finally be able to support my friends at various MRG clubs, schools, and universities for two days of the 70th All-Japan RG Championships held at Chiba Port Arena.

Chiba Port Arena

I headed up to Chiba on Friday evening, finding it difficult to sleep as I was so excited about finally seeing Naoya Nagai in person for what would be his last performances as a college gymnast. Despite his immense talent and breathtaking routines, Naoya had never won as All-Japan individual champion throughout his seven years at Aomori Yamada HS or Aomori University. He placed second at the recent All-Japan Intercollegiate Championships after fellow senior Kohei Ogawa from Hanazono University.

Inside Chiba Port Arena, the air crackled with anticipation. The arena was ringed with a rainbow of colorful banners representing each of the RG clubs and schools competing (in Japan, both men’s and women’s gymnasts and teams compete on the same floor using different mats, with routines alternating between male and female individual gymnasts and teams). Parents and fans wore their school’s T-shirts and clutched colorful towels and banners to wave when their team was performing.

Left: Katsumi Sakakibara Right: Kan Hatakeyama

When I was first introduced to MRG in April, I initially focused exclusively on team (synchronized) routines. But through my friend’s guidance, I began to appreciate and admire individual gymnasts’ routines, particularly former champions like Kyohei Oshita (who now performs with BLUE TOKYO), Hayami Yumita of Kokushikan (he now performs with Cirque du Soleil Varekai and was sitting nearly directly behind me on Saturday), Kan Hatakeyama, and many others. I’m friends with numerous high school and college MR gymnasts on social media, and it was with great pleasure that I was able to finally meet some of my Internet friends face-to-face, including parents of MR gymnasts, coaches, and fellow fans. I am so grateful to the Japanese MRG community for their warm welcome and overwhelming support of my attempts to share and spread the beauty of Japanese MRG with English-speaking fans in Japan and abroad.

Left: Naoya Nagai (Aomori University)
Right: Kohei Ogawa (Hanazono University)

From the very first rope routine on Saturday morning, I sat enthralled at the array of talent on display: from dramatic opening poses entangled with the rope, sinuous movements, apparatus in constant motion, to equally dramatic ending poses, each individual routine was a compact marvel of storytelling (in men’s RG, each individual routine clocks in at a mere 1:15 to 1:30). But the moment that I had waited months to see was Naoya Nagai; I had watched quite possibly every video of his routines on YouTube, unable to tear my eyes away. Every gymnast brings something unique to his performances, but Naoya possesses absolute star quality, mastering not only the technical but bringing a sensual, charged energy to his routines and incorporating unique moves and themes not commonly seen in MRG.

As Naoya approached the spring floor for his first routine, the customary school cheer was called, then the audience response was absolutely deafening, a roar of support for the clear fan favorite. The audience fell absolutely silent in rapt anticipation as Naoya struck his opening pose, starting his clubs routine with the forceful percussive slap of the clubs against each other. In constant motion, with no sound but the sharp intake of breath, the forceful pounding of his body against the spring floor, and the silent sensual scrape of the clubs along his body, he was a red and black firebird that electrified the audience. When he struck his ending pose, the audience erupted in cheers. Even the judges seemed stymied on how to score his routines; at times, an excited huddle among the men’s judges would deliberate on scoring elements (points are based a 10-point scale that measures the difficulty of the tumbling and 10 points for apparatus handling for a possible total of 20 points).

Left: Yuga Usui(OKB)
Right: Ritomo Ando (Aomori University)

Another of my MRG friends, Yuga Usui (currently a graduate student at Chukyo University), placed second overall at All-Japan with extremely strong routines despite only being able to practice three times a week; it was my first time meeting him and seeing him perform in person. I have particular admiration and respect for my many friends who are OB (“old boy”) gymnasts, including Yuga, several Koksuhikan gymnasts, and my friends from Re:member – pursuing the thing you love despite full-time jobs, families, children, or graduate school is a different challenge altogether, and the fact these young men have continued to find time to practice and stay in top form speaks highly of their dedication and great love for this unique sport.

Yuhei Ishikawa (Kokushikan University)

It was also my first time seeing Yuhei Ishikawa (Kokushikan) perform all four routines (this summer I profiled Yuhei for an English-language magazine in Tokyo). He placed eighth on Saturday for his first All-Japan as a college student; his beautifully expressive routines possess the same captivating quality that Nagai-san’s do and I look forward to following his career at Kokushikan.

Kosuke Hori (Doshisha University)

Yet others were gymnasts I had seen perform at Sasaki Cup and online at Inter-High, including some of my favorite high school individual gymnasts (including Keisuke Tanaka of Saitama Sakae HS, whose rope routine is absolutely electrifying), the Sakumoto brothers of Aomori University and Aomori Yamada HS, Ritomo Ando of Aomori Univesrity, and Kosuke Hori of Doshisha University. Kohei Ogawa pulled out all the stops on his club routine with his impossibly high chain of flips, but in a role reversal, it was Kohei that dropped his club (the same thing happened to Naoya at All-Japan Inter-College; it is not uncommon for apparatus to go astray during a routine, and spares are placed at the edge of the spring floor or mat for that very purpose, although gymnasts receive a technical deduction if they choose to use the spare). Ritomo Ando pulled off a gorgeous one-handed catch of both clubs to 2Cello’s Mombasa, and another of his routines was set to Joe Hisaishi’s “Hope and Legacy,” the same piece of music that Japanese Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu smashed international records to at April’s Worlds 2017 in Helsinki.

The women’s RG routines were no less impressive, with a wide range of musical genres (jazz, mambo, French / Turkish pop, rockabilly, classical). The female gymnasts seemed to be tracing incantations in the air with their elegant ribbon routines; for the group routines, first-place winners Kokushikan Women’s RG turned in a rousing rendition of “Cellblock Tango” from the musical “Chicago.” Fellow women’s gymnasts would scream out encouragement from the stands after every successful element and clap rhythmically during songs.

Saturday afternoon, 16 MRG groups performed, including top college teams Fukuoka, Sendai, Hanazono, Kokushikan and Aomori, high school teams Aomori Yamada (who I saw take first place at Sasaki Cup 2017), Kanzaki Seimei, Maebashi, Komyo (the only school in my home prefecture of Kanagawa with an MRG team), Ibara Junior, Kanzaki Seimei Junior, OKB, and my friends from Re:member. The top eight then went on to compete in the group finals on Sunday afternoon. It was my first time seeing Coach Nakata and Aodai in person, and they turned in an absolutely rock-solid performance up to their usual exacting standards. Kanzaki Seimei duplicated their astonishing “human tower” that snatched first place at Inter-High 2017; I had watched the video of this year’s winning Inter-High routine some 20 or 30 times, but it didn’t compare to the absolute power and beauty of seeing it in person. After the awards ceremony on Saturday evening, I was able to finally meet the team members of Re:member (I had previously met Komyo / Hanazono gymnast Kentaro Miyagawa at Sasaki Cup in May and we’d kept in touch via social media).

But the crowning moment, the one I’d hoped, prayed, and dreamed of all year, was seeing Naoya Nagai become all-around champion on Saturday evening. I cried tears of joy when he stepped up onto the podium and hoisted the trophy bedecked with its many ribbons. I was so, so happy to see his immense talent finally recognized by the judges, so happy for his family, friends, and teammates at Aodai, of seeing his dreams realized and ending his college gymnastics career on the ultimate high.

Naoya Nagai is shaking hands with his fan.

In total, I saw Naoya perform six routines at All-Japan, and I can truly say he is a phoenix, rising from the ashes, reinventing himself and ushering in a new dynasty of MRG. During his final year at Aomori, Naoya very narrowly missed capturing first place at the All-Japan Intercollege Championships in Morioka in August; an unfortunate fumble during his clubs routine meant a deduction and second place overall. However, at All-Japan 2017, a new Naoya was on display, each routine more astonishing than the last. He very boldly reworked his routines between All-Japan Inter-College in August and All-Japan RG Championships in October, leaving him with precious little practice time to perfect these last-minute changes (most gymnasts reuse their same routines between All-Japan Inter-College and All-Japan RG as the two are only about two months apart). One of his musical selections seemed calculated to keep the audience off-balance, leaning forward in breathless anticipation as the music would suddenly stop and lapse into silence, then breathlessly plunge forward, then stop again. His gorgeous competition costumes evoked the glitter and drama of men’s figure skating or Cirque du Soleil. On Sunday, I was able to meet and congratulate him in person and was so overwhelmed to finally meet my MRG idol, but he was the humblest, sweetest person, still beaming with happiness over his victory and graciously taking dozens of photographs with admiring fans and fellow athletes.

On Sunday, individual gymnasts once again performed all four routines to choose the winners for each apparatus (stick, clubs, rope, rings). The flash of light on sequins and gemstones, the dramatic lines, the sharp intake of breath and the gymnast becoming one with the music; all these things crystallized why MRG is so powerful to me, and so riveting to watch (YouTube videos are a poor substitute for the electric atmosphere of a live competition). But the most emotional moments of All-Japan were the standing ovations on Sunday afternoon. It began with Kohei Ogawa after his final rope routine; as Kohei bowed to the audience for the final time, we stood up as one with thunderous applause and cries of “otsukaresama deshita” (“thank you for your hard work”), unleashing a wave of overwhelming emotion that affected Kohei as well as the fans. A fan favorite and strong contender for the All-Japan all-around champion (which he won at All-Japan Intercollegiate 2017), the fans wanted to show their great respect and appreciation of this talented gymnast on his final performance. For our efforts, the fans received a warning from officials to “refrain from excessive cheering,” but it didn’t stop us from doing the same for Naoya after his final individual routine! Again, tears flowed freely on all sides. It was such a fitting tribute to the years of blood, sweat and tears these young men had poured into their art, for the immeasurable beauty they had gifted us, the fans.

Team “Re:member” and Sarah Hodge

After the group finals concluded on Sunday afternoon (my friends at Aodai, Kokushikan, and Aomori Yamada all put on tremendous performances), the teams and some of the coaches came up into the stands and it was absolute beautiful pandemonium as gymnasts from various schools mingled with parents, friends and fans. I stayed for Aodai’s exhibition piece, which was one of their long rope routines they perform at Blue Festa. This one was introduced by Nakata-sensei and had the added benefit of a comedy routine featuring samurai swordplay complete with wigs. Immediately afterwards, it was a mad dash through typhoon wind and rain and a cab ride back to Chiba Station. The typhoon on Sunday meant that getting back to Yokosuka was a bit of an adventure, but I was absolutely radiant (if totally and utterly exhausted for the next week!) by the excitement of my first All-Japan. I had so many warm memories of finally meeting gymnasts, friends, coaches and fans I’d only interacted with online, as well as met new friends that felt like old acquaintances. I was able to support my many MRG friends, made new ones, and had memories to last a lifetime.

Congratulations to all MR gymnasts, coaches, and parents at All-Japan 2017; thank you for your hard work!