How Attitudes to Fitness Are Changing in Japan

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Way back in 2008, Japanese people literally went bananas over a new diet centered around the yellow fruit. Dreamed up by a pharmacist in Osaka, within weeks of the Morning Banana Diet’s debut, sales of bananas here went up 70%; not only causing a brief banana shortage but also revealing the extraordinary power get-thin-quick schemes had over Japanese consumers.

Fast forward to 2017 where it’s getting harder to avoid the promotional campaigns for exaggerated body transformation programs such as Rizap. Thin but bloated “before” pictures are set against a glowing (literally) “after” image of the new ideal body: lean, tanned and, notably, muscular.

So what’s changed in the past ten years?

Beefing up the male body image

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Olympians reaching superhero status in the public’s eye could be changing opinions on the ideal male physique.

Compared to my hometown in America where pumping iron at the gym is a well-trodden path to masculinity, most Japanese men aren’t as concerned with building muscle. Many of Japan’s most idolized male pop stars and actors have a slender frame, so men don’t feel much pressure to be overtly muscular. In popular anime like Naruto or One Piece, the main characters mostly maintain their small, boyish figures despite spending their entire lives training and fighting. And when macho men are presented in the media they are typically made the butt of the joke, flexing their pecs and glutes for big laughs.

However, as athletes begin to dominate the news and pop culture, things are switching up.

More respectable buff figures are appearing on TV, posters and newspapers. Many “macho cafes” – where customers pay for muscled men to serve them macho-themed dishes – are gaining popularity. What probably started out as a tongue-in-cheek gimmick has turned into both a money-making machine and a popular source of fitspiration. Similarly, Macho 29 (above) are a pop group who’ve traded in flashy dance moves for flexing, dramatic posing and a legion of adoring fans.

The rise of the 24-hour gym

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Getting in shape is now a lot easier, even for those who work odd hours (i.e. most people in the city) due to the growing number of 24-hour gyms. Even on my long walks past midnight after work, I often see devoted fitness enthusiasts peddling away on exercise bikes and lifting weights in a brightly-lit gym on an otherwise lifeless street.

There are now over 190 Anytime Fitness gyms in Japan which allow late night fitness seekers to come and go at any time of the day or night. Tipness and Fast Gym24 follow a similar model.

For more casual gym goers on a budget, visiting the local city gym is one of the cheapest options, though the times aren’t as convenient. Fortunately for “weekend warriors”, recent studies have shown that working out heavily only on the weekends can be just as beneficial as a workout routine spread throughout the week.

Anime-spiration

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Even the otaku subculture is getting in on the action, inspired by animes like Kuroko no Basuke, Free!, Haikyuu, Days and Yowamuchi Pedal. Based on sports like basketball, swimming, volleyball and cycling, these anime have been gaining popularity and are giving fans a reason to get off the couch.

Powered by moe moe and positive reinforcement, otaku will soon be at the gym 24/7 – so be careful who you call a nerd in the future. Originally a crowdfunded project, the concept of the “Maid Gym” is coming to Akihabara – and it’s just what you would imagine. Cute girls dressed as maids spot and encourage gym goers as they train. At 7,500 yen for a 55-minute lesson, the price is set ridiculously high, but I’ve seen guys throw way more money than that around Akihabara anyway.

Powered by moe moe and positive reinforcement, otaku will soon be at the gym 24/7 – so be careful who you call a nerd in the future.

Olympic dreams

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According to the Fitness Industry Association of Japan, memberships and profits noticeably increased for Japanese gyms whenever the Olympics come around. Last year, Tokyo Oasis fitness club saw an increase of 5% in gym tours during the months leading up to the games in Rio.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is likely to benefit companies even more as Japan continues to promote its top athletes leading up to the event. Already it’s difficult to go anywhere in Tokyo without seeing posters and TV commercials featuring favorite medalists such as judo master Shohei Ono and highflying gymnast Kohei Uchimura.

Living in Tokyo? The historic Tokyo Metropolitan Gym in Shibuya hosted many events during the 1964 games, so you get to train where inspiring olympic athletes once competed. Facilities are open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, to 10 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9 p.m. on Sundays, and the basic entrance fee for the training room and swimming pool is only 600 yen.

So it seems like Japanese people’s ideas of fitness are changing. Have you noticed a difference since you’ve been in Japan? How does the approach to fitness differ from your home country? Let us know in the comments!

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Traveler, musician, runner, gamer, video editor.
  • Bradley Fried says:

    In the US, there has been a huge shift away from going to gyms and whiling away hours on vanity exercises and cardio machines to functional fitness focusing on core strength and balance over the last 10 years. This is also reflected by the rise in popularity of Cross-Fit and Yoga versus old-style gyms. I haven’t seen this shift happen yet in the fitness market in Japan.

  • justchillin says:

    it would be nice if gym memberships became cheaper tho

  • HoneyNaomi says:

    Interesting article! I’ll soon be moving to Japan for a few months…I was wondering where I could get information about clubs who also give classes in group…I’m looking for cheap options…Can anyone help me ? I’m going to be between central Tokyo and Fuchu

  • Charlie NGUYEN VAN PHUC says:

    Just like the author, I highly recommend the Tokyo Metropolitan Gym (which is located at Sendagaya station), easy, convenient, cheap (600yen for 2.5 hours or 6000 yen/month), and they don’t care if you have tattoos or not. Some employees at the info desk even speak English if needed (they’re mostly students from Sophia University or Aoyama University).

    As someone who lifts, not just to get fit, but as a real hobby, I’ve seen mixed reactions (especially since I’m Asian). Most guys would be like “man, I wish I could be buff like you”, whereas girls would be more “you’re too big”, with the exception of my girlfriend being a macho lover.

    I definitely felt different from most people out there, which is not a bad thing when everyone basically the same uniform.

    Here back in France, it’s quite normal to workout, even though I still feel different since most people don’t eat clean or weigh their food like I do.

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