Exclusive Q&A: Mr Morinari Watanabe - Secretary General of the Japanese Gymnastics Federation and Executive Committee Member of the F.I.G.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to meet Mr Morinari Watanabe, the Secretary General of the Japanese Gymnastics Federation. He is also the First Executive Committee Member of the International Gymnastics Federation (F.I.G.) as well as the Vice President of of the F.I.G Marketing Commission. What really peaked my interest during his introduction was that he was instrumental in bringing Rhythmic Gymnastics to Japan in the early 1980s as well as his involvement with the AEON Group (he is the General Manager of the Sports and Leisure Department and the President of the AEON Rhythmic Gymnastics Club.)  

I am a huge admirer of Japanese Rhythmic Gymnastics - their Gymnasts have an incredible work ethic; their Groups are spectacular to watch and they have Men's Rhythmic Gymnastics. This was an ideal opportunity to ask how things work behind the scenes. Mr Watanabe not only answered all my questions in great detail, but also graciously replied to an email questionnaire that I sent to him.

 

Q. Mr Watanabe you helped bring Rhythmic Gymnastics to Japan, could you elaborate more on this?

A. With establishing the Japan Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation in 1984, we developed Rhythmic Gymnastics in Japan by increasing the number of Rhythmic Gymnastics Clubs from only three in 1984 to the current 800. 

In 1984, Rhythmic Gymnastics was not known in Japan at all. Therefore, our task was to let people know what Rhythmic Gymnastics is.

Note: Mr Watanabe also mentioned that Neshka Robeva, Bulgarian National Coach for many years, was brought out to Japan during this time. This was where he saw the artistry and discipline involved in the Sport and believed that this was something that could thrive in Japan. Japan and Bulgaria have had an incredibly close working relationship since this time. 

 

Q. What was your growth strategy for Rhythmic Gymnastics in Japan? You mentioned that you went with a sponsor that offered you no money - why did you go with this option?

A. I visited 3 large Japanese companies and asked them to be involved in Rhythmic Gymnastics. The companies called Daiei and Seibu promised to construct gymnasiums and provide enough funds. 

AEON said that they would let me use the name of AEON but asked me to work on the activities by myself. I was told to make funds by myself. 

Then, I chose AEON. That was because I knew that the day of happiness would not come unless I experienced hardships. 

Now, AEON became an excellent company while Daiei and Seibu went bankrupt. 

I believe that things I get without effort have no value. 

 

Q. What were your biggest challenges in establishing Rhythmic Gymnastics in Japan and how did you overcome them?

A. The biggest challenge was that no one knew the sport of Rhythmic Gymnastics. We tried to attract people by introducing how wonderful Rhythmic Gymnastics is by carrying out Galas in various regions. In addition, we tried to introduce attractiveness of Rhythmic Gymnastics through TV by broadcasting the AEON Cup.

Note: Mr Morinari's brief to the Rhythmic Gymnastics Coaches was that they need to use the space that they have - i.e. make it work in a classroom and it needs needs to be inclusive.

 

Q. How are you involved with Rhythmic Gymnastics in Japan today? 

I am a FIG Executive Committee member; a member of the Jury of Appeal at the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships; Secretary General of Japan Gymnastics Association and President of AEON Rhythmic Gymnastics Club. 

As for AEON RG Club which I run and manage, currently it has 50 clubs in Japan with 2000 club members. 

Note: The 2000 club members essentially carries the funding of their top Rhythmic Gymnasts.

 

Q. The Aeon Cup, Worldwide R.G. Club Competition has become one of the most prestigious competitions to attend on the Rhythmic Gymnastics calendar. What did it take to make this competition such a success?

A. The Bosnian conflict occurred in 1994. The former Yugoslavia was one of the leading countries in Rhythmic Gymnastics. However, with the war, Rhythmic Gymnasts were struggling. 

With the aim to help such a painful predicament, we started the AEON Cup. 

We invited gymnasts from Serbia and Croatia to the AEON Cup and the Gymnasts from both countries shook hands. 

Profit of the AEON Cup was donated to help refugee children of the Bosnian conflict. 

Even now, revenue from the tickets of the AEON Cup is donated to refugee children in the world through UNHCR. The AEON Cup is a symbol of peace. 

What is it that sport is seeking? They are friendships and peace. 

The AEON Cup has them. I think that is why the AEON Cup has been successful. 

 

Q. What would you say is your biggest success with Gymnastics in Japan today? How did you make this happen?

A.  In the past, the Japanese Gymnastics community has enjoyed a glorious history. However, Japan got zero medals at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and the Sydney Olympics in 2000. 

In 2001, I assumed the position of Secretary General of Japan Gymnastics Association and was given the mission to regain our former glory. Four years later, the glory was successfully regained as the Japanese Men’s Artistic Gymnastics got gold medals at the team final of the Athens Olympics in 2004. 

The basics of the strategy was to focus and be deep. We can’t make everything possible at one time. We need to go step by step. 

During the 4 years from 2001 to 2004, I spent money for enhancing Men’s Artistic Gymnastics team competition intensively. 

I spent zero for Women’s Artistic Gymnastics, Rhythmic Gymnastics and Trampoline. 

But everyone trusted my strategy. We believed that one medal would lead us to the different future. 

After Men’s Artistic Gymnastic team got medals in 2004, we started to get sponsors. 

And then, at the London Olympics in 2012, Men’s Artistic Gymnastics team got gold medals, Women’s Artistic Gymnastics team was at the 8th place, Rhythmic Gymnastics was at the 7th place and Trampoline was also in the final at the 4th place. 

Currently, Japan Gymnastics Association has enough money for their trainings. 

Strategy and people’s trust are necessary. 

 

Q. Do you have any advice for South African Rhythmic Gymnastics Club Owners and Coaches that you think could help them grow their business?

A. Each club wants to give an Olympic opportunity to their gymnasts. That is important. 

At the same time, that is very dangerous, because that could trigger conflicts within a country or a region. 

Everybody has to look to the world. 

They have to aim for the world where South African gymnasts participate and perform. 

Those gymnasts do not have to be from their club’s gymnasts. 

When they are ready to unite and compete in the world together, South Africa will become one and South African Rhythmic Gymnastics will develop further. 

“To respect other people in a same manner as she/he respects herself/himself” is important. 

 

Mr Morinari Watanabe's Profile

FIG 

First Executive Committee Member 

Vice President of FIG Marketing Commission 

 

Japan Gymnastics Association

Secretary General of Japan Gymnastics Association 

 

AEON CO., LTD. 

General Manager of Sports and Leisure Department 

President of AEON Rhythmic Gymnastics Club 


Michelle Kleu
Michelle Kleu

Author