Japan's No-Aerobics

A recent World Health Organization study, coauthored by Christopher Murray, professor of international health economics, ranked the Japanese as...

A recent World Health Organization study, coauthored by Christopher Murray, professor of international health economics, ranked the Japanese as the world's healthiest people. They have apparently achieved this without the "no pain, no gain" ethic of fitness clubs, according to research by Laura Ginsberg, a recent postdoctoral fellow at Harvard's Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. A cultural anthropologist and certified aerobics instructor, Ginsberg was a staff member of two health clubs, one in downtown Tokyo, another in a quiet suburb, between 1996 and 1997 and interviewed members at both gyms. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, she writes that members "quit the club at alarming rates" and adds, "[T]he majority opt for sweating in the sauna over sweating in the aerobics studio."

The fact that only 3 percent of the Japanese population chooses to exercise twice a week or more (the American figure is 7 percent) interests Ginsberg less than her view of the Japanese fitness club as a "contradictory space where the tensions between labor and leisure, and between health and beauty, prove to be irreconcilable." Japanese are not averse to hard work: discipline, effort, and self-sacrifice are cornerstones of the nation's corporate culture, and many students attend juku (private cram schools) after a full day in elementary or high school. Some Japanese corporations even require employees to undergo "hardship courses," where they run barefoot on gravel or douse themselves with icy water without a whimper as evidence of strong character.

But for this very reason--because Japanese companies are so notoriously demanding of their employees--workers often prefer to relax during time off. In Japan, fitness clubs emphasize relaxation and stretching far more than their American counterparts. "In the last 10 minutes of many aerobics classes, the instructors knead the feet, calves, and even buttocks of the members as they relax," Ginsberg writes. Health clubs serve ice cream and beer, sponsor after-hours parties, and photocopy television-program listings for members, who use the clubs as a type of community center--a place to socialize, take classes, and learn new skills. "Working out" is work; as one respondent asked Ginsberg, "Why should I pay someone to make me tired?"

Both men and women avoid lifting weights and building strength. For men, "It's seen as vaguely homosexual to build up muscle," says Ginsberg. "It's paying too much attention to the body--and paying it to a male body. It also seems too individualistic." For Japanese women, well-defined muscles contradict ideals of feminine beauty, which stress slimness and "cuteness" [kawaisa]. "Success at the fitness club equals failure according to cultural standards of beauty," Ginsberg writes, noting that many women refuse to pedal stationary exercise bikes at resistance higher than zero in fear of "bulking up." Most women prefer quick-fix diets, pills, and creams to working out.

Despite the Japanese government's aggressive push for increased leisure and healthier lifestyles, corporations neglect fitness clubs to funnel huge sums of money into the hostess bars, pubs, and strip bars where employees can unwind after a stressful day by sharing a few drinks. The strippers and hostesses are typically foreign women who exemplify the tall, slim, long-legged look the Japanese identify with the "Western" body. Ironically, these foreign-born strippers and hostesses were among the most dedicated members of the downtown Tokyo club where Ginsberg worked, comprising nearly 30 percent of its membership. "[T]hese women spend their days cycling, lifting, and stepping to burn off the calorie-laden beers from the night before," she writes, "and to prime their bodies to maximize potential tips later that night."

~Craig Lambert

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