July 2014

There is something familiar about an early-morning stroll through parks around Asia. From Singapore to Shanghai you will see locals working up a sweat: usually it's tai chi, yoga or some other form of calisthenics. In Japan, at 06.30, the scene is similar except that people are doing twists, back bends, lunges and jumping jacks in unison to a song and the voice of an instructor coming from a small portable radio.

This routine, known as rajio taiso (radio calisthenics), lasts just a few minutes and can be done anywhere, anytime, by anyone. The idea, first borrowed from an American insurance company nearly a century ago, was the government's attempt to stress to a then-poor nation the importance of healthy living. It seems to have worked: Japan consistently tops the global longevity rankings.

When working on the story below in 2012 I visited parks, offices and factories; I also went into the recording studio with a team of instructors at Japanese public broadcaster NHK. I then travelled with them to the far-flung prefecture of Tottori, in western Japan, where hundreds of locals, young and old, turned out for a live national broadcast despite an approaching typhoon.

It can be hard to fathom how an exercise routine has endured for nearly a century but rajio taiso has become an important community-building activity – a way for the country to retain a bit of what was lost in the rush to become the world's third-largest economy.

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November 2012

Edits

Health

Expo 58: Don't stop moving— Japan

Preface

In Japan, if you’re not doing ‘rajio taiso’ you’re either dead or you’ve slept in. Millions of Japanese rise early every morning to get together and do radio exercises – the rest do them at work.

Exercise, Expo, Fitness, Health, Japan, Rajio Taiso, Workplace

Two minutes until showtime and a murmur of anticipation ripples through the crowd. On a stage at a school gym in western Japan the instructor, flanked by two slender women in T-shirts and pink sweatpants, tells the gathering of 800 people standing in tidy rows to take a breather and drink some water. Strong gusts from an approaching typhoon rustle the gym’s curtains. “It’s hot and muggy today so let’s make sure we don’t overdo it,” the instructor, Hajime Tago, says. Twenty seconds before 06.30 ticks around he urges people to take their places. “OK everyone, here we go!”

As music blares from the speakers, Tago raises his arms and wiggles his fingers; on cue the crowd applaud enthusiastically. “Good morning to everyone here on location and around the country and to those of you tuning in from overseas!” Tago says. “We’re broadcasting live from Hokuei town in Tottori prefecture.” For the next 10 minutes, Tago leads his charges in a series of stretches, twists, lunges and jumps as a woman at a piano plays a catchy tune to set the rhythm and pace.

To millions of Japanese, mornings wouldn’t be the same without rajio taiso: radio exercises. Nearly everyone knows the five-minute dai-ichi (first) routine by heart. From very early on they learn the moves at school or in neighbourhood parks and commit to memory the soundtrack that public broadcaster nhk airs on TV and radio up to seven times a day. When they join the workforce it’s often a part of their daily regime at offices, factories and shops. “For Japanese people, doing rajio taiso becomes second nature,” says Taketoshi Kishimoto, the 53-year-old general manager of Nikka Whisky Distilling’s factory in Kashiwa city, northeast of Tokyo (see right).

The genius of rajio taiso is that it can be done anywhere by anyone. When monocle visits nhk’s TV studio (page 208), two instructors and six models are recording a run-through of the 13 moves in the dai-ichi routine, the one suitable for all ages. Later they do the more rigorous dai-ni (second) version, aimed at a younger, more active crowd. “Every movement is carefully designed to get you to work muscles that you wouldn’t normally use,” says 39-year-old instructor Mika Okamoto.

Rajio taiso was an American idea before the Japanese made it their own. In the 1920s, Japan lagged behind richer Western nations by almost every yardstick: economic growth, health standards, longevity. Government officials felt there was a need for something that would improve the lot of the ordinary Japanese. So they did what anyone in their situation would: they sent their best and brightest overseas to learn from the West. One official from the life-insurance division at what was then Japan’s post and telecommunications ministry returned from the US with a proposal for an exercise regimen modeled on Metropolitan Life Insurance Co’s 15-minute radio calisthenics. By 1928, Japanese postal-service employees at all 20,000 outlets were out on the curb every day to demonstrate the moves.

Eight decades on the practice shows no signs of dying out. According to the non-profit National Radio Exercise Federation (see page 202) roughly one in five Japanese – amounting to 28 million people – does rajio taiso. Offices and factories play recordings of nhk’s programmes and schoolchildren do the exercises as part of their physical education. Meanwhile, trendy newer versions abound: Otona no Rajio Taiso (Radio Exercises for Adults) was recently in the best-seller book charts for more than two months, redirecting attention back to the original.

Rajio taiso is successful because it has become many things: a warm-up exercise for the health-conscious; a routine for the elderly; team-building for corporate Japan; and a seasonal ritual for schoolchildren. It’s tempting to view it through a regional lens, comparing it to locals doing tai-chi or stretching in city parks and plazas from Singapore to Shanghai. But staying limber is only part of the reason Japanese still do synchronised radio calisthenics; the importance of group dynamics in Japanese culture explains the rest.

  1. Nikka Whisky Distilling Co

    At Nikka Whisky Distilling’s factory in Kashiwa city, the rajio taiso theme song marks the official start of the day at 08.25. Lasting just five minutes, the exercises are a crucial warm-up for employees before they head to their stations. It’s not just about the health benefits, though: the camaraderie counts, too. “Think of it as a form of communication,” says Taketoshi Kishimoto, general manager at the bottling factory. Kishimoto has been doing rajio taiso for so many years that he only needs to hear the music and his body knows what to do. “It’s like riding a bicycle,” he says.

  2. Setagaya park

    The early-morning scene at Setagaya park in Tokyo is a familiar one at parks across Japan: it’s just a few people standing around a radio half an hour before public broadcaster NHK’s 06.30 rajio taiso programme. Suddenly, with minutes to go, the gathering swells. They start by singing a song and soon they are moving in unison to the music. In summer they are joined by schoolchildren who collect stamps in a booklet for attending and later trade said booklet for stationery or snacks, a reward for being diligent. Alas, some residents near small parks have complained about the noise at such an early hour.

  3. Meiji

    On the rooftop of a building at food producer Meiji’s milk and yoghurt factory in Toda city, north of Tokyo, 50 workers in white uniforms are bending and stretching and twisting together before they hit the production line. Rajio taiso is a tradition at Meiji that dates back to 1966, when back injuries were a common complaint among the company’s factory workers. No president in Meiji’s 95-year history has ever made the exercises a requirement but they are now a daily ritual for all employees. After 08.00 exercises the managers offer reminders about safety and injuries, ending the powwow with a flourish: the “zero accidents” chant.

  4. National Radio Exercises Federation

    At the Tokyo headquarters of the National Radio Exercises Federation the staff do 10 minutes of exercises at 15.00. The non-profit group, which exists solely to promote rajio taiso, organises events and acts as a historical archivist. But to keep the practice alive it relies on volunteers who run more than 1,000 local chapters in parks, schools and offices. In 2005, the federation came up with written and physical tests to certify new rajio taiso teachers who are then qualified to teach at regional and community level. Last year more than 60 per cent of test-takers passed.

  5. Hokuei gym

    For nearly two months in summer, NHK airs its radio progamme live from a different place every day. It’s a big deal for locals and helps keep rajio taiso going at the grass-roots level. In late September the national tour swung through Hokuei, a town of 16,000 in Tottori prefecture, western Japan. More than 800 people young and old turned out for the 06.30 broadcast. The event was scheduled to be held on the playing field of a school and organisers were expecting 1,600 people. However, showers and strong winds forced organisers to move the event into the gym.

  6. Mitsubishi Electric

    Rajio taiso has been a fixture of the workplace in Japan for as long as anybody can remember; many people can’t even remember when it started. “We don’t have records of why or how long ago this daily rajio taiso routine began,” says Mitsubishi Electric spokeswoman Haruka Takahashi. At the manufacturer’s global headquarters in Tokyo nearly everyone occupying the cubicles in the factory automation systems group gets up for the five-minute morning session. “I asked one veteran who joined in 1974 and he said that the company was already doing it when he joined,” says Takahashi.

  7. NHK television studio

    Every so often NHK’s three instructors, six models (“assistants”) and a pianist go into a TV studio to record shows called Minna no Taiso (Exercises for Everyone) and Terebi Taiso (TV Exercises); they record for radio, too. The format for TV has remained largely unchanged for decades: an instructor off-camera leads the exercise while women in leotards and ballet shoes demonstrate correct form to a live piano accompaniment. There’s something very old-fashioned about the costumes and backdrops. Every show looks almost identical but Yoshitaka Iwasaki, who has directed the programme for the past decade, says there are subtle changes – camera angles and costumes, for instance – in response to viewers’ requests.

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