Better off sleeping than working out?


Here’s a fun exercise: Ask Japanese adults how they spent their childhood summers. They’ll almost always mention rajio taiso, the morning exercises they did in neighborhood groups during the school holiday. Then ask if their own children participate. Chances are their kids sleep in rather than get up to exercise.

Since I wasn’t raised in Japan, my experience of rajio taiso is limited to one attempt per year on Sports Day at my sons’ school. Students and teachers do the calisthenic routine to warm up, and spectators all join in.

During this year’s try, I sensed someone staring at me. Admittedly, I must have been a sight as I struggled to follow the prompts coming through the loudspeaker. “Ichi, ni, san, shi! Eeeee-chi, ni, san, shi!” The Japanese father next to me was watching with the detachment of an anthropologist observing his subject. Finally, he spoke. “Curious,” he said. “I would have thought an American could do rajio taiso. It started in America, after all.”

Rajio taiso? The brief exercise routine that is broadcast daily on Japanese national radio and television? The knee-bends and toe-touches performed religiously by senior citizens across the country? This quintessentially Japanese aerobic ritual originated in America?

I did some research. He was right! The first radio exercise program in the world was broadcast in 1925 in New York, sponsored by an American life insurance company. The program never became popular in the United States, but before it died out a Japanese study tour picked up the idea. On the morning of Nov. 1, 1928, the first rajio taiso program was broadcast on public airways in Tokyo. By 1932, over 1.5 million Japanese were doing radio calisthenics every morning.

The link between radio calisthenics and elementary schools was forged early. The central broadcasting region donated radios to elementary schools, asking that they play the program during summer vacation. Over 3.5 million people participated in such schoolyard sessions, and a drive to get children to exercise to the radio broadcasts went national.

The idea of morning calisthenics fitted nicely with an existing effort to get children up early during summer vacation. From the early 1920s, many schools discouraged sleeping in by organizing hayaokikai (early-riser meetings). Children who showed up on time got a stamp on special attendance cards. But many kids just went back to bed. So schools turned the radio on and made kids do the exercises before they got their stamp. Presumably, that was enough to keep them up.

Until recent years, Japanese schoolchildren were expected to follow a strict routine during summer vacation: Get up for group calisthenics at 6:30 a.m.; go straight home and eat a proper breakfast; then do a few hours of summer vacation homework before the day gets too hot. Teachers used to patrol popular recreation areas and scold any child who was out at play before 10 a.m.

Adults will tell you rajio taiso was hobo kyosei (nearly compulsory) when they were kids. Schools played a big role in ensuring a good turnout by distributing attendance cards and pushing students to participate. In some areas, kids got pencils or a notebook for good attendance, but in many communities the satisfaction of a well-stamped card was considered sufficient reward.

My friend Yoshiko, who is in her early 40s, recalls participating. She says she was a showoff who stood at the front and exercised enthusiastically. But looking back, she thinks the whole thing was stupid. She has never once sent her own daughter, now a sixth-grader, out for summer vacation calisthenics.

This is a perfect example of one change that’s taking place. Today’s parents, particularly those in big cities, are less likely to wake their kids up for rajio taiso. Maybe it’s because so many kids these days stay up until 10 or 11 p.m. Maybe it’s because more people have their own ideas about how to spend summer vacation. And schools are now more willing to defer to parents than they used to be.

In our area, participation of schoolchildren has been falling for years. That’s partly because there are fewer children in central Tokyo. But fewer of the children who do live here show up for vacation exercise.

Our school sent home a handout listing the locations for rajio taiso, but didn’t push. The handout merely encouraged us to participate. But five of the 10 neighborhoods that send children to our school no longer organize rajio taiso sessions. The five that still do have cut back on the number of days. It used to be normal to hold sessions nearly every morning throughout the six-week vacation. Now, the neighborhood associations in our area organize just seven to 12 sessions in July.

I went around one morning to check things out. In one location, most of the people participating were senior citizens. In another, next to a large apartment complex, there were maybe 20 kids. I’d estimate that fewer than half of the 300 children at our school get up for rajio taiso. My own kids have never gone.

That’s not to suggest that rajio taiso is dying out. At least not yet. If you’re curious, there are still opportunities to do knee-bends with your neighbors. You can practice the moves by watching the NHK television broadcasts any morning from 6:30 to 6:40. Check neighborhood bulletin boards for nearby locations and dates. There are also special summer events, called kaki (or junkai)rajio taiso, that draw large crowds of people of all ages. For example, there is one scheduled for this Sunday, Aug. 18, at the Riverside Sports Center in Taito Ward in Tokyo.

I won’t be there. It’s not that I have anything against rajio taiso. I think anything that gets people to exercise is a good idea. But there are a lot more options in Japan these days, and I prefer a family swim or a bike ride. So I’m very glad schools are more willing to let parents decide how children should spend their summer holidays.