Ever since the 1970s, when “jazzercise” and jogging became a national craze, America has trotted out a long list of health gurus, with Richard “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” Simmons, Jane Fonda, Cindy Crawford and Paula Abdul among those going gold with their exercise videos.
In Japan, a living-room workout has long meant either ordering an American video or contorting to NHK’s sleepy afternoon terebi taiso (television exercise) and its unchanging piano theme.
Now, though, Japanese fitness buffs finally have a honed knight in shining armor of their very own.
Or rather, a duke in shiny Spandex. Duke Saraie, that is: a 50-year-old former model from Wakayama Prefecture, near Osaka in western Japan, on a crusade to get Japan in shape with a system of walking he humbly calls “Dukeswalk.”
Dukeswalk aims to improve strength, posture and breathing. But with its wild arm-swinging and hip-swaying, it is so eccentric that even its creator calls it “exercise you snicker through.”
A frequent TV presence in recent months, there is no mistaking Duke. Sporting his signature black skullcap, aquiline eyeglasses and a collection of rings so chunky they could be mistaken for brass knuckles, he grins as he guides self-conscious celebrities through his exercise routine. (Such footage is shot between visits from the luxury Mediterranean enclave of Monaco, where he lives two-thirds of the year with his wife and two daughters.)
On air, Duke doesn’t so much speak as boom — in a fusillade of gritty Kansai dialect. And like any teacher imbued with a sense of mission, he isn’t afraid to dish out some straight talk.
“Japanese people can’t walk. They take tiny little steps,” he said during a break midway through a recent two-hour evening class in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. Walking beautifully, on the other hand, is achieved with broad steps, swaying of the shoulders, a ramrod posture. But Duke was quick to deny that learning to move like a catwalk star should be a chore. “I make it fun.”
Duke, real name Takuya Saraie, says he acquired his aristocratic nickname decades ago from a French fashion-world buddy whom he happened to tell that he had blue blood in his lineage.
To this day, Duke keeps right on bragging — yet his self-praise somehow manages to charm, not offend, as his popularity attests. Having produced more than eight books, five videos and three DVDs, with total sales topping a million units, he has inspired some 40,000 students to sign up for Dukeswalk classes nationwide.
Women, he says, account for almost all of them. (“Japanese men aren’t conscious of a need to learn walking.”) And that female-to-male ratio seems to suit Duke just fine, thank you, judging by the proceedings at the Shibuya class.
First Duke changed into his tights and sneakers — without bothering to leave the hall where 26 women — mostly in their 20s and 30s — were warming up in their exercise wear. (OK, there was one guy.)
Then, after signing a few autographs, Duke finally got the class started with some karate-like stretches.
“One, ip, AY! Two, na, AY! Three, hip, HOP!” he counted, nonsensically, as the women stretched and giggled like schoolgirls. Then, switching to another position: “One, ah, EE! Two, ah, EE! Three . . . !”
After about 15 minutes, the students started rubbing their bellies from the strain. To give them a break, Duke paused to talk to his class . . . about himself.
There was a story, obviously intended to inspire envy, about a female fan who had grabbed his rear end. Then he described having consumed too much cheese and beer for lunch that day, punctuating his account with burps.
Soon, though, it was back to work, with Duke getting his students to wiggle every which way on the floor and howl like wolves. Yet even amid this pandemonium, he managed to get in some more flirtation and plug his upcoming DVD.
In the second half, Duke and his class changed into street clothes and he demonstrated how to walk with the grace of a model. When it was their turn, the students — hands draped behind them, hips jutting forward and swaying from side to side — worked the floor with Duke striding ahead of them flamboyantly in a pair of black-and-white cowboy boots.
Risk of arrest
Certainly, Duke’s exercises — drawn, he says, from the martial arts, yoga and ballet — are popular in part because they can be performed by anyone regardless of age if done at the right intensity.
By anybody, yes. But not anywhere.
Take, for example, the “torso walk,” arguably Duke’s best-known exercise. With your arms raised and crossed above your head and palms joined so that you look like a church steeple, you zigzag along, waving your “spire” and saying “Shyoot, shyoot!” as you go.
At home, such behavior could destroy your china set. In public, it could get you arrested.
“It’s kind of an embarrassing way to move,” said Noriko Shiga, a 32-year-old professional dancer who performs Dukeswalk (in discreet, wide-open spaces) to strengthen her armpit muscles.
Duke is aware of the issue and has envisioned a solution: an exercise haven he plans to christen the “Walking Paradise.”
“The Walking Paradise,” he muses on his Web site, “would be built on land lent by the government, like a park is. It would have a dome. From morning till dark, anyone from children to seniors could come and practice Dukeswalk for free.”
If it sounds like some messianic fantasy, well — it is. Duke sees his regimen as nothing short of a social phenomenon that could revolutionize Japan by reducing stress and bringing families closer together through exercise.
Who knows? Maybe newly energized consumers would even part with disposable income. “If this thing spreads, the Japanese economy could rise a few percent,” he speculated.
Still, even Duke acknowledged that his Paradise is years away, at best. In the meantime, he just wants Japan to get moving. “The mood in Japan today is dark,” he said. “But if everybody were to stretch their legs out and walk, things would brighten up.”