Books Japan MAG

Kato Sawao Was a “Secret Gymnast” When He Started the Sport

Kato Sawao, the 1968 and 1972 Olympic gold medalist in the all-around, didn’t set out to become a gymnast. In fact, he originally wanted to be a baseball player. But his physical education teacher saw potential in him, and that’s how he became a “secret gymnast” who participated in gymnastics without telling his parents. 

In his autobiography, The Path of Beautiful Gymnastics: The Story of Kato Sawao (美しい体操の軌跡加藤沢男物語), Kato recounts his start in gymnastics. Below, I’ve translated and woven together a few chapters of his book to tell that story.

The caption reads: June 1962, around the time of the first year of the Niigata Minami High School gymnastics club. Prefectural tournament inter-high school preliminaries

Kato Sawao was born right after the end of World War II. He was one of five children, but ten people lived in his home.

Born in Barracks

On October 11, 1946, the year after the end of the war, I was born as the second youngest son among five siblings. I will be seventy-five years old this year.

At the time, my father, Eitaro, was a Japan National Railways employee and worked at a nearby station in the weak electric power section. My mother’s name was Mitsue. My father was a quiet man and seldom got angry. My mother was kind. My eldest brother’s name was Keiichi, my second brother was Tsuyoshi, and my sister was Boushi.  These are names that use a strange kanji, but I’ve never asked the reason. I often go by the name Sawao (沢男), but on my family register, I am Sawao (澤男). My sister is Rieko.

Before and after the war, I was told that the house where I was born was destroyed twice in a big fire. It is said that it was not a war fire, (the house in the former Gosen city before the merger was burned down, and the house in the former Muramatsu-cho where we moved to was also burned down. It was the barracks that became a refuge. I have no way of knowing, but I was born in this barracks, called “Atago-so,” in the former Muramatsu-cho. It seems that it was a birth in a place where many households were living together. I spent my childhood in the barracks, then moved to the house my father built near the train station in Muramatsu. It is from this house that I remember.

I did not know about the war, but I grew up in a time when its aftermath lingered. The whole of Japan must have been suffering, and my parents must have had a difficult time as well. However, my parents did not show any such signs of hardship to their children. I was fortunate that there were still rice and vegetable farmers around.

In this age, parents and five children tend to be considered a family of seven, but the Kato family at that time was not like that for a while. There was a grandmother, but also our uncle’s couple lived under the same roof, so ten people have lived together. In times of food shortages, it must have been difficult for adults to procure food. The hardest part was when it was time to eat. You can’t feel full if you mess around with it.

Still, it was fun. In my childish mind, I knew that everyone was supporting each other. It was such a time.


終戦の翌年、一九四六 (昭和二十一)年十月十一日、私は五人きょうだいの下から二番目の息子として生まれた。 今年で七十五歳になる。

当時、父の栄太郎は国鉄職員で、近隣の駅で弱電関係の仕事をしていた。母はミツヱといった。父は無口な人で、めったに怒ることはなかった。母は優しかった。 長兄は系一、次兄は耐、姉は帽子と、一風変わった漢字を使った名前であるが、そのわけを聞いたことはない。私は、沢男と名乗ることが多いが、戸籍上は澤男である。 妹はリエ子である。

終戦前後、生家は二度にわたって大火に巻き込まれて焼失したことを、物心ついてから聞かされた。戦火ではなかったというが、(合併前の旧五泉市にあった家が焼け、引っ越した先の旧村松町の家も焼けたという。避難所になったのは兵舎だった。 知るよしもないが、私は旧村松町にあったこの兵舎の「愛宕荘」で生まれたのだという。何世帯もが共同生活を強いられる中でのお産だったらしい。赤ん坊時代を兵舎で過ごし、その後、父が村松の駅近くに建てた家に引っ越した。 私の記憶にあるのは、この家からである。


今の時代なら、両親と五人の子どもだから七人家族と思われがちだが、時の加藤家は一時期、そうではなかった。 祖母がいたが、さらに親戚のおじさん夫婦たちも同じ屋根の下に住んでおり、十人が生活を共にしたことがある。食糧難の時代、大人たちによる食糧調達は大変だったはずである。 それよりも大変だったのは、食事時である。まごまごしていたら満腹感は味わえない。

それでも、楽しかった。 子供心に、みんな支え合って生きているのが分かっていたからだ。 そんな時代だった。

Kato Sawao wouldn’t start his formal gymnastics training until much later, but he says that his first salto happened when he fell down a hill.

Nature Was My Playground

I was born in 1946, the year after the end of the war. In my time, the playground was outside. It’s not like, “It’s dangerous outside, so come home early.” But it was like, “Go out and play.” The war had just ended. In general, I had never seen or imagined a game machine. Even without such things, there were plenty of things to play outside. There was a school playground, but there were mountains and rivers.

In such nature, I used to run around and play until I was exhausted, forgetting that the sun had set.

Like me, Uchimura Kohei, who won two consecutive Olympic gold medals, says that the gymnasium has been his playground since he was born. The sports club in Nagasaki that his parents founded was his playground, so he must have played there until he was satisfied. In my case, nature was my playground, and I played there until I was satisfied. I think there is no difference in that the environment in which you were born and raised was your playground.

Muramatsu-cho (now Gosen City), where I grew up, was a castle town of Horike Sanmangoku during the Edo period. Therefore, the historical heritage remains here and there. There were ruins of a mountain castle on the outskirts of town. I think that was when I was in the upper grades of elementary school, or when I entered junior high school. I still have unforgettable memories.

There was a steep slope of the ruins of a grassy mountain castle. It was a scary place but we as children had an adventurous spirit of “wanting to see scary things”.

Then I got hit. I got my foot caught in the grass and fell forward, downwards, with my body still stretched out. The slope was so steep that I couldn’t stop, and I wonder how many turns I took. It is interesting because I don’t remember anything before or after, but I clearly remember while I was rolling down. I also remember that my legs were stretched out. Luckily, I stopped at a place where the grass was deeply overgrown. Still, that was a brilliant forward stretched somersault I had performed as a child.


今の時代と、私の時代では、子どもの遊びはずいぶんと違う。 終戦の翌年、一九四六年に生まれたが、私の時代、遊びの場=外であった。「外は危ないから、早く帰っていらっしゃい」ではない。「外へ出て遊びなさい」の時代であった。戦争が終わったばかりである。大体、ゲーム機など、見たこともなければ、想像したこともなかった。そんなものがなくても、外には遊ぶものがあふれていた。学校の運動場もあったが、山があり、川もあった。


私と同じく、五輪の個人総合二連覇を達成した内村航平君は、生まれたときから体操場が遊び場だったという。 両親が創設した長崎のスポーツクラブそのものが遊び場だったというから、納得するまで、そこで遊んだのだろう。私の場合は、自然が遊び場で、 そこで納得するまで遊んだのである。生まれて育った環境そのものが遊び場だったという点において、そこには違いがないと思う。

私が育った村松町 (現在の五泉市)は、江戸時代、堀家三万石の城下町だった。だから、歴史的な遺産もところどころに残っている。 町の外れには山城の跡があった。あれは、小学生の高学年だったのだろうか、中学に入った頃のことだったのだろうか。今でも忘れられない思い出がある。


そこで、私はやらかした。草に足を取られ、体を伸ばしたまま下に向かって、前のめりに倒れてしまった。傾斜が急なので、止まることができず、何回転したのだろう。前後のことは何も覚えていないが、転がり落ちている間の記憶は鮮明だからおもしろい。 脚がぴんと伸びていたのも覚えている。運良く、草が深く茂っているところで止まった。それにしても、あれは、子どもの頃、私が演じた見事な伸身の前方宙返りだった。

Kato also remembers doing somersaults in the rice straw.

Straw and Mat

When I was in elementary school, my body was never strong at first. I was the kind of kid who would get stomachaches once a week. It got better as I got older, and I was able to play with my friends to my heart’s content.

As you may know, Niigata is a rice-growing area. During the autumn harvest season, the number of ways to play increased. It was fun to run around stepping on the cut rice stumps.

There were more fun things. After threshing, the straw bundles and rice husks made a great cushion. When dozens of bundles were piled up, they were so fluffy that they could absorb the impact of a child’s weight, even if he or she jumped off. In addition, the smell of the well-dried straw was fragrant.

We jumped off the roof onto this pile of straw. Jumping down did not hurt at all. On the contrary, my body sank into the straw, and the fragrance of the straw filled me with a sense of exhilaration. My friends and I did this over and over again. Sometimes we even did somersaults. I never thought about it when I was in elementary school, but perhaps I was feeling the fascination and exhilaration of gymnastics. The pile of straw was my mat.

Rice straw can be transformed into various things and used in daily life. In the old days, straw sandals and baskets were woven. It also serves as fodder for livestock. And so is the sumo ring. The ring in which we played sumo was also handmade from this rice straw.

But that doesn’t mean my family was a farmer. My father was a railway employee. However, the fact that rice fields, fields, and piles of straw became my playground was largely due to the fact that the society at that time supported each other. I was grateful. The adults were kind to the children. We were equally made to play, yet equally scolded.

Children of all ages used to play together from first grade to sixth grade. Naturally, there was a considerable gap in terms of physical strength, and it was difficult for young kids to keep up. The elders added some help, but we had no choice but to do our best. Eventually we got naturally stronger.




もっと楽しいことがあった。 脱穀の後のわら束やもみ殻は格好のクッションになったのである。何十もの束が積み上げられると、フワフワとして、子どもの体重なら、飛び降りても十分に衝撃を吸収してくれるのである。おまけに、よく乾いたわらの匂いは香ばしい。

この積み上げられたわらの山に屋根から飛び降りる。エイッとジャンプして降りても、まったく痛くない。それどころか、体はわらの中に沈み込み、香ばしいわらの香りに包まれて爽快感たっぷりだった。仲間たちと、何度も何度も繰り返したものである。時には宙返りなどして飛んだ。 小学生の頃は考えてもみなかったが、体操の魅力、 爽快感を感じていたのかもしれない。わらの山は、私のマットだった。

稲のわらは、いろいろなものに姿を変えて生活に生かされる。 古くは、編んでわらじやカゴになった。家畜の餌にもなる。そして、相撲の土俵もそうである。われわれが相撲遊びをした土俵も、 この稲わらで手作りしたものだった。

だからといって、私の家が農家だったわけではない。父は国鉄の職員だった。 しかし、田んぼや畑、 わらの山などが私の遊び場になったのは、当時の社会が、お互いを支えて成り立っていたことが大きい。ありがたかった。 大人たちは子どもたちにやさしかった。 等遊ばせ、等しく怒られた。

子どもたちは、年齢を問わず、 小学一年生から六年生まで一緒になって遊んだものである。当然、体力面で相当な開きがあって、年少者はなかなか付いていけない。年長者は多少の手心を加えてくれたが、頑張るしかなかった。そのうち、自然に体力が付いたものである。

Originally, Kato wanted to play baseball. However, his physical education teacher saw a potential gymnast.

Invitation to Gymnastics Club

When I entered Atago Junior High School, I actually wanted to play baseball. But things didn’t go smoothly. The situation was I couldn’t join any club, even a baseball club. My second brother, who used to be a member of the Atago Junior High School baseball team, unexpectedly opposed me.

My second brother, who failed the university entrance exam and went to a cram school in Tokyo, seems to have believed from his own experience that if you focused on baseball, you would neglect your studies. “If you do club activities, you’ll be like me,” he said. I think it was love for his younger brother, but for someone like me who loved to play and be physically active, it was very hard. For some reason, there was an air in the house that I didn’t do club activities. I gave up baseball for the time being.

A month passed without me joining any club since I entered the school. It was May. Physical education class had started. Normally, we were supposed to do the long jump that day, but the teacher pointed to the bars on the side of the schoolyard and said, “Today we will do the bars.” The teacher was a young and “cool” man who had just graduated from Niigata University.

It was later learned that the purpose was to find a candidate for the gymnastics competition in anticipation of the Niigata National Athletic Meet scheduled to be held locally in 1964. The young teacher had received instructions from his superiors.

After the bar class, several small people, including myself, were called into the staff room. Teacher Umeda Kimi was the gymnastics club adviser. While I was waiting for Teacher Umeda to return from class, Teacher Hayakawa, the mother of a childhood friend of mine, looked at me sadly, saying, “Sawao, did you do something wrong again?” I remember it was embarrassing. Before long, Teacher Umeda appeared in the staff room and slowly began to talk. “I have something to say to you guys. Do you want to join the gymnastics club?”

It was so sudden, so I was surprised. I gave up on the baseball club and decided not to do club activities. Then, all of a sudden, I received an unexpected invitation from Teacher Umeda. I hesitated. It wasn’t easy to say yes, but this event of that day changed my destiny.



大学受験に失敗し、 東京の予備校に進んだ次兄は、自らの経験から、野球に熱中すると勉強がおろそかになると思い込んでいたようだ。 「クラブなんかやると、オレみたいになるぞ」というわけである。それは弟に対する愛情だったと思うが、遊びや体を動かすことが大好きな私にしてみれば、とてもつらいことだった。家の中にも何となく、私がクラブ活動はやらないような空気が漂っていた。 取りあえず、野球はあきらめた。

入学してから、どの部にも属さずに一ヶ月が過ぎた。五月だった。体育の授業が始まった。本来なら、その日は走り幅跳びを行うはずだったが、先生は校庭のわきにある鉄棒を指さすと、言った。「今日は鉄棒をやる」。 新潟大学を卒業したばかりの、当時風に言えば「かっ「こいい」、若い男の先生だった。

後で分かったことだが、一九六四年に予定されていた地元開催の新潟国体を見据えて、操競技の人材発掘が目的だったようだ。 若い先生は上司から指示を受けていたのだ。

鉄棒の授業の後、私を含めて体の小さい数人が職員室に呼ばれた。 体操部顧問は梅田キミ先生だった。 授業から戻る梅田先生を待つ間、幼い頃からの友人の母親でもある国語の早川先生が「沢男、また何か悪さでもしたのか」と悲しそうな顔で私の顔をのぞき込んだ。バツが悪かったのを覚えている。やがて梅田先生が職員室に現れ、おもむろに切り出した。「あなたたちに話があります。 体操部に入らない?」


Originally, Kato didn’t tell his family about his gymnastics club.

Secret Gymnast

It was a sudden invitation to join the gymnastics club from gymnastics club adviser Teacher Umeda Kimi. May was when I just entered junior high school. Speaking of school teachers, they were more respected than they are now. You can’t just say “no.” Now I’m in trouble. My second brother prohibited me from participating in club activities, and I felt uncomfortable talking about this to my parents at home.

Even so, I always liked to move my body since I was little. In the staff room, I couldn’t say yes right away, but somehow the talk progressed in the direction of joining the club. Thus, my life in the gymnastics club at Atago Junior High School began without telling my parents or my second brother, who was studying at a preparatory school in Tokyo.

I was, so to speak, a “hidden member” of the gymnastics club. At that time, I practiced in my underwear running shirt. When there was a competition nearby, I borrowed pants for the competition from the school. When I got home, I pretended not to know about running shirts that had been soiled from practice or competitions and put them in the laundry basket. At practice outside, my shirt would sometimes get muddy. But strangely enough, my mother washed it without saying anything. Thinking back on it now, my mother probably knew along the way. I think she acted like she didn’t know, partly because she was considerate of my brother. Teacher Umeda was also the young wife from a temple where our family was a parishioner. Considering the relationship between the temple and the parishioners, there’s no way my mother didn’t know about it.

Anyway, that’s how my gymnastics career started. However, I did not spend every day on gymnastics. I liked all kinds of things, so I was into baseball and softball, skiing in the mountains in the winter, and swimming in the river in the summer. It was like gymnastics in between. I was a selfish gymnast and nobody knew when I was practicing. That’s why I was told by Teacher Umeda to “practice a little.”

Muramatsu, where I grew up, was an area where people were enthusiastic about education. I wasn’t the type of person who couldn’t study. Club activities were closed before regular exams, so I studied properly. My grades were in the top category.


体操部顧問、梅田キミ先生からの唐突な体操部への入部勧誘だった。 中学に入ったばかりの五月。学校の先生といえば、今と比べものにならないほど尊敬された時代である。簡単に「入りません」とは言えない。さあ、困った。次兄から部活を禁じられ、家で両親に話すのも気まずい空気が流れていた。

それでも私は、小さい頃から体を動かしたい性分だった。 職員室で、二つ返事ではなかったが、何となく入部する方向へと話は進んだ。こうして、親にも、東京の予備校で学んでいる次兄にも内緒で、私の愛宕中学での体操部生活がスタートしたのである。

いわば体操部の「隠れ部員」だった。当時、練習は下着のランニングシャツでやっていた。近くで試合があるときは試合用のズボンを学校から借りた。 帰宅すると、練習や試合で汚れたランニングシャツを素知らぬふりをして洗濯かごに入れていた。外の練習ではシャツが泥だらけになることもあった。下着として使っていたら泥んこになることはない。だが、不思議なことに、母は何も言わずに洗ってくれた。今にして思えば、母は途中から知っていたのだろう。兄に対する配慮もあって知らんぷりでいてくれたのだと思う。 梅田先生は我が家が檀家のお寺の若奥さんでもあったのである。お寺と檀家の関係からしても、母が知らなかったはずがないのだ。

とにかく、そうして私の体操人生がスタートした。だが、体操漬けの日々を送っていたわけではない。いろいろな遊びが好きだったから、野球やソフトボールに熱中し、冬は山でスキー、 夏は川で泳いでいた。その合間に体操があるようなものだった。いつ練習していたのか分からないような、好き勝手な体操部員だった。だから、梅田先生から「少しは練習しなさい」と言われたものである。

私の育った村松は教育熱心な地域だった。 私は勉強ができないほうではなかった。 定期試験の前、部活は休みとなる決まりで、きちんと勉強はしたものである。 成績は一応、上位の部類にいた。

However, eventually, Kato’s family found out because he broke his elbow.

Broken Elbow

My gymnastics in club activities continued without knowing whether my family found out. I couldn’t say that I was really devoting myself to practice, but interestingly, I gained strength as I continued. Gymnastics became more interesting as I got stronger.

In the third year of junior high school, the level of my team and myself rose to the next level. We performed well in the regional qualifying rounds and were selected to participate in the prefectural tournament. At Atago Junior High School, the baseball and women’s volleyball teams were among the best in the prefecture, but other teams were not so good. But our gymnastics club advanced to the prefectural tournament.

Our coach, Teacher Umeda Kimi, was very motivated. In order to further improve our skills, she asked her fellow gymnastics instructor, the coach of Muramatsu High School, to hold joint practice sessions with high school students. This joint practice led to an “incident.”

I worked hard too. The event happened in an instant. I turned too far during the somersault off of the horizontal bar and tried to support myself with my hands while turning to the left. A sharp pain ran through me. I broke my bone. I was treated at an osteopathic clinic in Niigata City, and ended up returning home late at night with my arm in a sling. Teacher Umeda sensed responsibility and said she would send me home. But it was not a good idea. Because I had a feeling that I was doing gymnastics in secret from my family. “Teacher, please don’t come to my house,” I begged, but it was useless to say. A teacher explained what happened, mother listened to it. I was more embarrassed between them than having to endure a sore arm. But this “incident” was a turning point for me. Rather, it can be said that it was a new start day. A disaster turned into a blessing.

Even if my family had a vague knowledge of my club activities, they could no longer refuse to acknowledge it as I was participating in the prefectural tournament. From then on, they supported me as I went from being a secret member of the club to being out in the sun. I was already a fine member of the gymnastics club.



中学三年になると、私や仲間のレベルは上がった。 地区予選で好成績を収め、県大会への出場が決まったのである。 愛宕中学は野球部女子バレーボール部が県内でトップレベルにあったが、ほかの部はそれほどでもなかった。それが、体操部の県大会進出である。

顧問の梅田キミ先生はやる気十分だった。 さらなるレベルアップを図った先生は、体操の指導者仲間である県立村松高の顧問の先生に頼み込み、高校生との合同練習を行った。この合同練習が「事件」を引き起こすことになったのである。

私も一生懸命だった。 出来事は一瞬のうちに起きた。 鉄棒の宙返りで回りすぎた私は、左へ振り向きながら手で支えようとした。 激痛が走った。 骨折したのである。 新潟市内にある接骨院で治療が施され、腕をつるした状態で夜遅くに帰宅する羽目となった。責任を感じた梅田先生は自宅まで送るという。しかし、それはまずかった。私には家族に隠して体操をやっているという思いがあったからだ。 「先生、家に来ないでください」と頼んだが、無駄だった。事情を話す先生、それを聞く母親。 二人の間に挟まって、 腕の痛みをこらえるよりも、私はバツが悪かった。しかし、この「事件」は私にとって大きな転機となった。むしろ、新たなスタートの日になったといってもいい。災い転じて福となったのである。

部活していたことをうすうす知っていたとしても、県大会に出場するまでになっていた私を家族は認めないわけにはいかなくなったのである。隠れ部員から、晴れて日なたに出ることになった私を、 それからは懸命にサポートしてくれた。もう、立派な体操部員だった。


To continue his training, Kato went to a specific high school (Niigata Minami) and moved in with an uncle.

Niigata Minami High School

Due to a broken elbow, I was unable to join my final junior high school competition. It was disappointing, but I did not lose my passion for gymnastics. In the summer and fall, it was time for me to decide on a career path. Around that time, I received an invitation to join a gymnastics team. It was through the Niigata City Board of Education. The prefectural government had set a goal of having an elite team of gymnasts from Niigata Minami High School, a school outside my school district, serve as a base for training gymnasts, aiming for great results in the 1964 Niigata National Gymnastics Championships, to be held in my hometown. It would be my senior year in high school when the National Championships would be held in my hometown.

During my junior high school days, I did gymnastics pretty much as I liked, but my name had become known in the prefecture’s gymnastics circles. But I couldn’t say “OK, so?”

There was also a prefectural Muramatsu high school in my hometown. At that time, many of the junior high school students in Muramatsu who were aiming to go on to famous universities went to Niigata High School. Muramatsu High School was also known as a traditional school, producing excellent personnel.

Going to Niigata Minami High School instead of either of these was a rare case around me. My parents were forced to change their blueprint. My father couldn’t hide his confusion, saying, “Why do you have to go to another high school when there is a good high school in our hometown?” Atago Junior High School’s gymnastics club coach Teacher Umeda Kimi persuaded him to go on to Niigata Minami High School.

But the problem was not easy. The school district system was in place at the time, although it has become more relaxed in recent years. Even though the Niigata City Board of Education invited me to attend a high school in Niigata City, it was necessary for me to have a certificate of residence in Niigata City or its suburbs in order to proceed to a high school in Niigata City. Therefore, I had to move my address to the home of my uncle, my father’s younger brother, who lived in Niigata City. My uncle’s name was Kato Eisuke.

In fact, prior to this, my younger sister Rieko had been living at my uncle’s house as an adopted daughter, so we started to live together. My uncle initially wanted to adopt me, but I ended up spending three years at his house. My uncle’s house was located on the left bank of the Shinano River, and it was not until much later that I heard that the family home of singer Sachiko Kobayashi was a few doors down.


肘の骨折で、中学最後の県大会出場はならなかった。残念だったけれど、体操への情熱まで失ったわけではない。夏から秋にかけ、進路を決める時期がやってきた。その頃、私に勧誘があった。 新潟市教育委員会を通じての話だった。 県は、地元で開催される一九六四年の新潟国体に、私にとって学区外の県立新潟南高校体操競技育成の拠点校として精鋭をそろえ、好成績を目指すという目標を掲げていた。国体が開かれるのは私が高校三年になる年である。




しかし、問題は簡単ではなかった。 最近は緩やかになったが、当時は学区制がきちんとしていた。 新潟市教育委員会からのお誘いとはいえ、新潟市内の高校に進むには新潟市内かその近郊に住民票があることが必要だった。そこで新潟市内に住む父の弟、叔父の家に住所を移すことになった。叔父は加藤栄助といった。


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.