Rhythmic gymnast and new Toyota recruit Nanami Takenaka sits down for a chat with Sayuri Sugimoto, a rhythmic gymnastics national team captain and her senior colleague at Toyota.
In April 2021, rhythmic gymnastics "Fairy Japan" national team member Nanami Takenaka joined Toyota Motor Corporation. At Toyota she joins Sayuri Sugimoto, captain of Fairy Japan who is three years her senior, and shares much in common with Takenaka, both being from Aichi Prefecture and members of Minami Gymnastics Club.
In this story, Toyota Times interviews the two rhythmic gymnasts about the concerns and aspirations they have as members of Toyota while continuing their careers as athletes. What passionate feelings will these two reveal, given that they spend up to 350 days a year at training camps both in Japan and overseas?
Steadfast determination to make it through to the end is critical
--Ms. Takenaka, congratulations on joining Toyota Motor Corporation.
--Jumping straight in, is there anything you would like to ask Ms. Sugimoto about life as a new recruit, not just in her position as captain of the Fairy Japan national team, but also as your senior colleague at Toyota?
Well, I think first I would ask what changed when you joined the company. After that I would like to know if there is anything I need to do or any preparations I need to make for my working life.
As we practice together every day you have already probably seen my daily routine, so I can say that I don’t think your daily life will change that much. Even so, after a tournament is over and you return to the company to give a speech, you really feel supported when everyone congratulates you and says, “Well done!” Hearing this from work colleagues gives these words an even greater significance than when I was a student, and gives me the power to say, “Let’s go for it!” What’s changed for me is that I have come to strongly feel that I want to contribute to society as an active member of society .
When I was interviewed, one of the people at Toyota said to me, “It gives us courage seeing athletes try so hard in tournaments, so all you need to do is concentrate on training.” I was really inspired by these words, and it made me determined to do anything that I am able to do.
But first of all, I’m grateful for being blessed with an environment that allows me to focus on rhythmic gymnastics, and as I am unable to go into the office now, I think it’s my job to do my best in competitions and get results. I think that no matter what situation I face, what is critical is to have the determination to definitely make it through to the end.
Yes, you’re exactly right.
Also, when participating in events, I want to demonstrate the appeal and fun of rhythmic gymnastics to as many people as possible. I want to be the kind of athlete that people want to support after they get to know and understand rhythmic gymnastics. That is what keeps me going, even though events that we can participate in only come around occasionally.
Joining Toyota has increased opportunities to share rhythmic gymnastics with a wider range of people
Toyota is a company that is known by many people, all around the world. Since you joined Toyota, do you feel that you have been able to let more people get to know about rhythmic gymnastics than before?
When I took part in an event organized by the company, and let the various people there pick up and feel for themselves the (rhythmic gymnastics) apparatuses, they said things like, “So this is what rhythmic gymnastics is like!” and “Wow, this is amazing,” and even told me how beautiful I looked when I raised my legs in the air. Since joining Toyota, I’ve had more opportunities to let a wide range of people know about rhythmic gymnastics, including adults.
Was that an event aimed at adult participants?
It was a public event where people could meet the Toyota athletes and learn about the sport. It was also very interesting for me, because I was able to interact with the Paralympic athletes who work at Toyota, getting to know about other sports and learn what the rules are!
Rhythmic gymnasts used to be said to peak just past the age of 20
Even now, sometimes I still wonder if it’s okay for me to be out working in society. I worry about certain aspects of my job and whether I can behave properly, like writing e-mails and showing consideration for others.
I had those concerns too. My image of a “working person” was of an “adult” far more organized than me, and that was something that worried me. Also, it’s often been said in the world of rhythmic gymnastics that you reach your peak just past the age of 20, so I never even imagined that I would still be able to chase my dreams as an athlete long after graduating from college. That’s also why it’s a great relief to be at a company that tells me that it’s okay to focus on my rhythmic gymnastics.
In terms of working athletes in the world of rhythmic gymnastics, you (Sugimoto) and Rie Matsubara were the first, weren’t you? I had always thought that when I graduated from college I would also retire from competition, but then I saw my seniors at work and decided that I would also like to continue with rhythmic gymnastics after joining a company. That’s why even though I am worried about certain aspects of my working life, those are far outweighed by the enjoyment I feel.
Importance of knowing another person’s character before communicating
--Rhythmic gymnastics is a team sport and I hear that the Fairy Japan team spends about 350 days of the year at training camps. Is there anything that you consider important for creating an esprit de corps and teamwork in such a situation?
I think it’s important to communicate with consideration for others. As captain I sometimes make harsh comments for the sake of the individual and also for the team, but I think it is important to communicate once you know the character of the person you are talking to. There will always be certain aspects of a person that you do not know, even after spending a long time with them, but I always try as much as possible to choose words and phrases that will reach out to the person I am talking to in a way that understands their individuality and character.
In interviews I often get asked how I differentiate between rivals competing for team membership, friends and the team itself. The reality is that such differentiations don’t matter because we are all working hard towards the same goal. If something goes wrong, it is not just me, but all those around me who suffer. That’s why when things get tough, we all pull together, talking and listening to each other. I feel I can overcome things that I could not achieve on my own thanks to such friends. It’s something that makes me very happy.
--That’s a really special relationship to have, isn’t it? If I could now ask you a bit of a mean question…I think that the closer you are to someone, the more you can see the parts of them that aren’t so nice. How do you deal with this?
As we’re all living together and working towards the same goal, if we notice something that’s wrong or unpleasant we immediately reach out and discuss it together. When someone points out something about me, it makes me realize that’s how people see me and I try to fix it immediately. But even in such cases, I believe it’s important to take care about the way you say things. The way you say something could change the relationship with others.
In today’s interview we’re using polite honorifics (in our spoken Japanese), but actually in the Fairy Japan team the use of honorifics is prohibited. That’s why in the team I call Ms. Sugimoto her nickname “Sayurin” and if there is something we don’t like, even if it concerns a senior team member, we share our concerns directly. Also, if I don’t agree with someone who points out something to me, it could possibly be because that person has a negative feeling due to something hard that he or she is going through, or I am in a mental state that makes it difficult to take what is being said in my stride and accept it. I try to see things from both perspectives. After repeating this process many times, I find that recently I am able to understand where the problem is and on whose side. There are many times when this helps to convince me and work things out.
My own personal challenge is that I tend to be too focused on doing things for myself, so I would like to learn to rely more on others in the future.
Finishing a career in rhythmic gymnastics without regrets
--It’s really important to think about things not just from your own perspective, but also from the perspective of others. I think your team building methods are really useful and the know-how is something that you could give back to society. One final question: You still have a very long life ahead of you. Can you tell us a little about your goals for the future moving forward?
Firstly, I want to finish my career in rhythmic gymnastics without leaving any regrets. After that, one day in the future I would like to [get married and] wear a wedding dress (laughs). Of course, I also want to take on various challenges at work. Although I have a feeling that I would like to experience a world different to that of rhythmic gymnastics, I have yet to find something specific that I would like to explore. To be honest, the first thing and only thing I want to do at the moment is to achieve good results and repay the kindness of all the people who are supporting and helping me.
For me, the first and foremost thing is to do the very best I can in rhythmic gymnastics. After that, I would like to continue broadening my horizons and discover the things that I am capable of doing.
Born in Aichi Prefecture in 1996. Sugimoto was selected as a Fairy Japan national team member in 2013, while in the second grade of high school and was appointed captain the following year.
In 2015, Fairy Japan won the bronze medal (5 ribbons) at the World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Germany, the first time in 40 years for the Japanese team to win a medal.
At the 2019 World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, the team won its first-ever gold medal in the five balls event, and also scooped a silver medal in the hoop & club. Also in 2019 she and her teammates received the Best Gymnast Award from the Japan Gymnastics Association.
Born in Aichi Prefecture in 1998. Takenaka was selected for the Fairy Japan national team in 2015, while in the second grade of high school. In 2016 she was selected as a substitute member of the national rhythmic gymnastics team for the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
In 2017 she and Sayuri Sugimoto were both honored with an Aichi Prefecture Sports Citation Award. In 2018 she was presented with a Glory Award by the Japan Gymnastics Association. Her hobbies and pastimes include looking at information on makeup and fashion.