Unlike many Western countries, where exercising is inherent in people’s everyday lives, women in Japan are just starting to appreciate and enjoy staying in shape. Celebrities and models, who are known for setting the beauty standard in Japan, are now regularly posting gym selfies on Instagram, with hashtags like #鬼トレ (oni-tore, intense devil training) and #筋トレ女子(kin-tore-jyoshi, muscle training girls). These phenomena illustrate not only how beauty standards in Japan are changing, but also how fitness is becoming something much closer, and accessible in Japanese women’s lives.
Training and athletic activities are still perceived as masculine hobbies in Japan, and women who actively pursue sports weren’t a very common sight just a couple of years ago. In the past, these sporty women tended to cluster in small groups and rarely communicate their passion to outsiders. However, the relatively recent rise of social media facilitated a growing movement of women who openly share their gym stories and see exercising more as a vehicle for individual expression.
Nostalgia is another force that renews the interest in sports. In Japanese high schools, the so-called bukatsu-jyoshi (“sports club women”) used to serve as role models for female athletes. Bukatsu are extracurricular sports teams in schools that are almost mandatory in the Japanese school system.
Bukatsu-jyoshi spent their teenage years playing sports that they loved in tightly knit groups of peers and coaches. Many women still reminisce about their bukatsu days and wax nostalgic about the importance of team spirit and the joy of working out. It is common for these women to go back to their memorable athletic scenes when they’re grown up, even three to four times a week with their new workout mates from the gym. These intimate spaces allow them to freely enjoy what they love, with likeminded friends—just like back in the day.
|This article is part of the Cultural Radar series
On the other hand, emerging crowds in the fitness community in Japan engage with sports through alternative spaces and affiliation groups. Girls who previously had little interest in fitness are now starting to show up at various sports events and gyms. They’re updating each other on the newest fitness trends through Instagram, or Facebook, and also, increasingly, find their sources of inspiration on the same platforms. Intensive CrossFit workouts and gyms, for example, are becoming popular with social media celebrities like Aya, a CrossFit trainer and model who has 102,000 followers on Instagram. ‘B-monster’, an imported kickboxing gym from New York, do all their exercise in a dark, clubby atmosphere and are gaining traction with younger demographics.
Feelcycle and SurfFit are other examples of new training trends that tap into women’s desire to integrate sports into their individual lifestyles. Compared to normal gyms, these new services are also more accessible and women-friendly. Instagram has become the tool through which Japanese women document their fitness experiences, and is the main platform to share. According to a recent Macromill survey, about a third of Japanese women in their teens and 20s use Instagram, and Japanese users numbers on the app have more than quadrupled since 2014.
Women might have different motivations towards fitness, and brands from various categories are catering to their needs by celebrating female athletes who enjoy both the process and the results of training. Under Armour and Reebok endorse strong, fit women and openly challenge the Japanese preference for softer, slimmer figures. Fast fashion brands have also started to promote fitness and now offer a wider rage of sportswear. Forever 21, for instance, appeals to younger audiences by drawing a clearer connection between fashion and active participation in fitness communities. Even cosmetics brands are attracted to fitness now, as a part of their holistic approach to beauty. SK II just launched a “Skin training” campaign, and Shiseido’s “Run, Run, Beauty” showcases products women can use even while running or training.
Categories and products are relegated to the background as messages and stories of sports become the centre of conversation. This time, however, the message is addressed to strong, individual women. For the first time in Japan’s history, women are beginning to view fitness as a tool for individual expression and liberation. It might be worth taking time to think what fitness truly means to these women especially today, when female empowerment has become a national goal and Japan prepares to host the 2020 Olympics.
Naoko Okada is research executive with Flamingo Tokyo