Who’s that hunk of blond beefcake crunching his abs on NHK’s workout program “Minna de Kinniku Taiso”?
When the five-minute nightly exercise show launched for a four-episode run this August and attracted a huge cult following, social media users wanted to know the answer.
Tatsumasa Murasame probably wasn’t the name they expected to hear. But then very little about the 30-year-old landscape gardener, bodybuilder and TV personality — born Jakob Sebastian Bjork in his native Sweden and a naturalized Japanese citizen since 2015 — conforms to people’s ideas of who he should be.
“I want to introduce Japanese gardening to people who visit Japan, in its correct sense,” Murasame tells The Japan Times. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I want to be able to appreciate Japanese culture as it is, and keep it in its traditional ways as much as possible for future generations to come.
“And within this show business thing I am doing, I want to gain a lot of experience and do as much as possible. I want to do whatever comes my way without rejecting anything. I just want to try as much as possible.”
There is more to Murasame than meets the eye, particularly if the eye has only seen “Minna de Kinniku Taiso.” The show, which translates as “Bodybuilding Together” and ran for five minutes every night from 11:50 p.m. between Aug. 27 and 30, presented a series of workouts for viewers to try at home. Murasame appeared as one of presenter Michiya Tanimoto’s three silent, musclebound assistants, stoically demonstrating the exercises to a jazz-funk soundtrack.
The enthusiastic reception to the show on social media helped catapult Murasame to a new level of recognition, but his focus remains firmly on his day job. Since 2011, he has worked as a traditional Japanese gardener, landing an apprenticeship in Aichi Prefecture four years after arriving in the country as a 19-year-old to teach Swedish and English.
“I went into a phase thinking about what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “I tried to go back to my original idea of doing traditional Japanese work, something that was connected to Japanese culture in a professional sense. I was living in Nagoya at the time and I came into contact with a person who ran a landscaping firm there.
“First of all they wanted to see how I handled the environment and the climate, because it was in the middle of summer and it was probably around 41 degrees,” he continues. “They had me do the stuff that they have the new apprentices do, mainly the cleaning up. I wanted them to let me get straight onto all the traditional stuff and I wanted to have more responsibility.
“But I also understood that this apprenticeship system has a very strict hierarchy and that comes with the job. That was also something I thought was very interesting about it. I wanted to be a part of this hierarchy system. I want to go from the bottom and experience it all.”
Murasame stuck with the job and moved on to an apprenticeship in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, where he stayed for almost six years before leaving for a company in Chiba Prefecture in April last year. His current work involves designing, constructing and maintaining gardens for private clients, and gives him a sense of fulfilment that borders on the spiritual.
“I like that there are so many aspects to it, and it’s such a refined way of perceiving beauty in nature,” he says. “It’s so different from what we consider to be beautiful in Western cultures. In Western gardens and aesthetics, there are lots of man-made lines and shapes that are very symmetrical — things that you wouldn’t be able to find in nature. But in Japanese gardens, you take what you can from nature and then put just a little bit of human effort on top of that to create something that is in symbiosis with nature. Using nature to its fullest potential.”
Murasame says he was attracted to Japan because of its distinct traditional culture, and his desire to gain a deeper understanding of the country convinced him to take up Japanese citizenship in 2015. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of historical figures who had become naturalized citizens and taken on a new identity, so he asked his gardening oyakata — or master — to bestow him with a name.
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Faced with such a heavy responsibility, his master refused. But the company’s original founder took up the invitation, and Tatsumasa Murasame was born.
“He said there was an author who had the pen name Murasame,” he recalls. “He read a book written by him and it left an impression on him. He said I should choose it because it’s a very powerful name. But he also said, ‘If you are going to choose this name, you need to lead a life that lives up to the name.’
“For the first two years after I became a Japanese citizen, it was very hard for me to introduce myself because I didn’t know if I should introduce myself with my birth name or with my Japanese name. Japanese society, culture and Japanese people are combined with a certain look and a certain stereotype. So for me, coming in as a white man saying my name is Tatsumasa, especially when I go abroad and I have to submit my passport, they won’t believe me. It’s still a little bit hard for me to introduce myself. You have to explain, so sometimes I just say, ‘Hi, I’m Sebastian.'”
Murasame’s unique profile, Scandinavian good looks and bodybuilder’s physique — he has appeared in competitions and works out for an hour or two every day — meant he was bound to end up on TV sooner or later. He has appeared on several variety shows, and last month hosted a program on NHK World telling the story of the lost pirates of the Seto Inland Sea.
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However, his appearance on “Minna de Kinniku Taiso” has brought about a level of attention unlike anything he had previously experienced, and he’s happy to keep riding the wave wherever it takes him.
“Usually I wear my work gear, and I don’t show my face a lot, so I don’t get a lot of attention,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m with clients they talk to me about it. The most reaction I get is when I’m at work and I go to someone’s garden and they say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who’s on TV.’ It’s kind of funny because it’s another way for me to communicate with my clients, not just gardening.
“Whatever life throws at you, I want to try new things. For me, the media-related show business thing is something I enjoy because it allows me to grow as a person in a different kind of way. I want to try as much as possible.”
Check out more of Tatsumasa Murasame on Instagram: @tatsumasa.murasame