There has been a recent trend among Japanese comedians to go big — with their workouts. Toshiaki Kasuga, Nakayama Kinnikun and Yoshio Kojima all incorporate flexing into their routines, playing up macho stereotypes for laughs. However, Shun Kaneko isn’t laughing.
“On Japanese TV, when a muscular person comes out, they’re there for the sole purpose of being ridiculed,” Kaneko says. “They basically want to show the audience that you can feel good about yourself because all these buff guys are idiots. I really, really want to change that.”
The 27-year-old is anything but an idiot. He created a YouTube channel, Kanekin Fitness, that boasts just over 67,000 subscribers. Showing off arms the size of my legs, he is dressed in his own self-designed fitness gear and switches between English and Japanese with ease.
“I used to be the skinniest guy ever. I was around 13, 14 kilos lighter than I am right now,” he says, adding that he also used to be in a band. They’d play music every weekend, which included a lot of cigarettes and alcohol. So, he decided to get healthy.
“When I started working out, I realized that more people complimented me on my physique than on my music, asking me how I get in shape,” he says. “That’s when I thought there could be a potential market for this. I looked up fitness videos on YouTube Japan and was shocked to see that there was nothing out there.”
Recently, fitness buffs in Japan have been moving to the internet for information and entertainment. By only watching TV or flipping through magazines, most people see that the male body types represented in Japan are hardly diverse; eerily boyish singers take the stage in music and lanky actors are everywhere on the silver screen. When bulky men do appear in the media, they’re either oafs or freaks. Does Kaneko find this negative attitude toward “ripped” men harmful?
“I respect Japanese values, but not knowing your potential and what you can do if you put your mind to it is a problem,” he says. “Even in schools, coaches have a really old mentality, saying things like, ‘Don’t work out and put on muscle because you’ll become slower.’ In reality, athletes abroad all work out, no matter what sport they play.
“A common question I still get from my viewers is, ‘Will drinking protein stunt my growth?’ Protein powder isn’t some kind of steroid — it won’t stunt your growth, it’ll help your growth!”
While Kaneko doesn’t have a degree in fitness or nutrition, he says he still recognizes the need for fitness education in Japan. A lack of knowledge was one of the reasons he turned to YouTube in the first place.
“I was working out for a year before I started my channel in November 2014,” he says. “I felt like it was my responsibility to share what I learned in that year — how beginners like me can put on muscle, be healthier, learn about nutrition and all that.”
To appeal to a Japanese audience, Kaneko translated the English information he found into Japanese, and gave the videos a cultural twist.
“One thing I noticed about Japanese audiences is that they don’t respond well to the masculine kind of ‘I’m better than everyone else’ approach,” he says. “I can’t act like I’m some kind of teacher who’s here to teach people how to do things the Western way. My approach was to say, ‘I’m a trainee too, I’m not a trainer’. I also realized that to get people to watch my videos and want to come back to my channel, it had to be more than just how-to’s. I gave it a more personal approach by balancing fitness and vlogging, which led to the emergence of a whole new scene.”
Edward Kato is another leading figure of this new fitness-focused lifestyle scene in Japan. Having only started training competitively a year ago, he has already opened his own private gym in Tokyo’s Azabu-juban neighborhood called Beyond Gym, which boasts a star-studded clientele — and he’s only 24.
“There’s still a long way to go but I definitely think there’s a fitness boom happening in Japan,” Kato says. “In general, I feel like there’s an image here that people with big bodies aren’t attractive. Now we have people like Shun Kaneko and Yukihiro Yuasa who are genuinely handsome guys who also have great, muscular bodies. I think younger people are realizing that having a lot of muscle mass is attractive, too.”
Are the lanky male bodies portrayed in Japanese media an ideal that talent agencies are trying to push, or are they an object of desire for both male and female fans?
“Japanese girls don’t know muscle, real muscle,” Yukihiro Yuasa jokes, a personal trainer who holds the second place title in the Physique category of the Asia Bodybuilding and Fitness Championships. The 32-year-old has been training for 16 years and has witnessed the development of the fitness scene in Japan.
“People don’t really know what built bodies look like. When I go to the beach, I cause somewhat of a commotion. I don’t even want to take my shirt off because people think I’m showing off,” he says with a laugh.
While the Japanese fitness boom is mostly comprised of macho men, Yuasa sees interest among women growing steadily as well.
“There’s definitely a trend among women to get into yoga and stretching classes first. After a while they realize, ‘Wait a minute, this doesn’t help change my body at all,’ and start working out properly.”
In order to encourage more women to take an interest in fitness, Yuasa believes it’s important for people to be exposed to healthy lifestyles and the importance of fitness from a young age.
“Every single one of my female clients became interested in fitness through foreign media,” he says. “Japanese schools should incorporate more education about developing a healthy body.”
Besides uploading workout tutorials, managing a gym and training beginners, the three fitness fanatics see their part in promoting the growing scene as being role models — not just eye candy to be gawked at via social media.
“Japanese TV doesn’t take fitness seriously,” Kato says, echoing Kaneko’s earlier sentiment. “I turn down all TV offers because I know they want to portray people like me comically. I want to maintain the image that bodybuilding is cool. I think it’s my job to maintain a great body in order to inspire people to work harder.”
Kaneko agrees. “It’s really hard to convince Japanese people to workout, since they tend to be thin and healthy,” he says. “What I feel is that, if you have the advantage of being healthy already, why wouldn’t you want to strive for more?”
It’s already August and we’re well into beach season — but Kaneko stresses that exercising is not just about aesthetics.
“Whether you’re a salaryman or a student, I think everyone can and should incorporate fitness into their lives,” Kaneko argues. “If you want to lose weight, you can just restrict calories. This approach puts your body at risk of gaining the same weight back though, since your metabolism slows down. The healthiest way to get fit is to maintain your caloric intake but up your expenditure by working out more.
“People have pretty much reached a consensus that it takes two weeks to make anything a habit. So my biggest plea would be: Just try working out for two weeks. Please!”
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