Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.
Nonfiction writer Hidemine Takahashi was born in Yokohama in 1961. His work spans a wide range of topics, covering everything from mandatory retirement to high school baseball teams. In 1995, Takahashi started to take an interest in radio calisthenics, a phenomenon woven into the fabric of life in Japan. He conducted research for the next three years, and in 1998 published a book on the wonders of these exercises.
September 4, 2018
*You will leave the NHK website.
In the early hours of the morning, about 10 million people regularly gather in Japan’s parks and other public spaces to do rajio taiso, or radio calisthenics. With a 90-year history, these simple exercises set to a piano melody are instantly recognizable countrywide by people of all ages. At the start of the program, host Peter Barakan puts that claim to the test by stopping passersby on the street and playing the music. Viewers may be surprised to see that every single person he talks to identifies the melody within a few seconds. Just what makes this fitness routine such a ubiquitous part of Japanese society? On this edition of Japanology Plus, we discover the answer through an up close and personal look at the enduring tradition radio calisthenics.
The introduction of radio calisthenics to Japanese society can be credited to the life insurance industry. Established in 1916, the Post Office Life Insurance Bureau (currently Japan Post Insurance) was faced with a society where the average age was only somewhere in the mid 40s. In search of ideas to improve the health of the nation, employee Seiichi Shindo traveled to the United States in the mid 1920s. There he encountered a 15-minute long exercise program that was sponsored by a life insurance company and broadcast on the radio each day. Inspired, Shindo brought the idea of creating a set of gymnastic exercises that anyone could do—regardless of age, gender, or location—back home to Japan.
Performing radio calisthenics properly puts your joints through their full range of motion, which is valuable for the many people who spend most of the day sitting down.
Radio calisthenics were officially introduced to the public on November 1, 1928 as part of the celebration of the coronation of the Showa emperor. Aired daily at 7 am by NHK, the exercises were considered quite modern due to the use of radio. Originally broadcast only in Tokyo, the fitness routine was expanded nationwide in February 1929. The Imperial Aid Association promoted radio calisthenics to soldiers during World War II as a way to improve their overall condition. Under the postwar US occupation, however, the exercises were banned in 1946 for being too militaristic. After a few unsuccessful attempts at introducing alternate versions, a new set of radio calisthenics was broadcast in 1951. A second version was introduced the following year, and these two routines are the same ones used nowadays.
Both radio calisthenics routines last for three minutes and feature 13 rhythmic movements that promote blood circulation and flexibility. They’re currently broadcast four times a day, with the first at 6:30 am. Participants can join in by using either a radio or TV. (Those outside Japan can partake by tuning in to NHK World Radio Japan!) As Matt Alt learns the hard way on Plus One, there is much more to the movements than first meets the eye. Although the actions are simple overall, there are many tiny details to pay attention to, such as how tightly to clench one’s hands or when to pause during certain movements. In order to make radio calisthenics accessible to all, a televised version called Minna no Taiso (Everyone’s Exercises) featuring a seated routine was introduced in 1999. Thanks to that update and the adaptability of the movements, people with limited physical capabilities can practice a version tailored to their specific needs.
Ai Harakawa demonstrates perfect form while instructor Hajime Tago tells Matt about the key points of each movement.
Since their inception, radio calisthenics have been used to strengthen ties between people. As expert guest Hidemine Takahashi mentions, participation is more about building community and enjoying a shared experience than it is about comparing how well or how poorly one does the movements. Often led by volunteers, many people look forward to starting the day alongside neighbors and friends.
An especially important aspect of radio calisthenics is the sense of daily structure it offers many of Japan’s most elderly citizens. Japan has a population of a little under 127 million people. 12.3% are under the age of 15, 60% between the ages of 15 and 64, and 27.7% are 65 and older. In a country with an aging population, it’s especially important for people to keep fit. Radio calisthenics are a perfect way for the elderly to create a daily routine, surround themselves with a like-minded community, and maintain their health as they age. These exercises may be one secret to keeping Japan’s population of senior citizens spry and independent.
Some dedicated community volunteers lead radio calisthenics rain or shine, 365 days a year.
Given radio calisthenics’ large demographic of elderly participants, you may think that these exercises will eventually fade away. It could be argued, however, that radio calisthenics, with their movements set to music, were actually ahead of their time and served as a forerunner to some more recently created workouts. It’s not uncommon for individuals—from runners to weightlifters, and everyone in between—to listen to music while working out. Additionally, there are several trendy group exercise classes nowadays that combine movements such as dancing or riding stationary bikes while enjoying upbeat music. While those classes might not be as open to people of all ages and backgrounds, they do evoke a similar sense of community. It seems that the principles underpinning radio calisthenics could well be here to stay.
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