Naoki Go carefully positions his feet on the ground, slowly lifts both arms, then shuffles as if preparing to shoulder a huge imaginary weight.

In the next instant, he flexes his biceps. The muscles on each arm rise like loaves in an oven. The veins strain against the skin as if ready to burst, and Go attempts to smile through a grimace of concentration. He holds the pose for several seconds, his muscles flaring and bulging.

Lined up alongside him on the stage at Sunpian Kawasaki are 11 other bodybuilders all trying to qualify from the first round of the annual Japan Open. The seven judges sitting in the front row must whittle the initial field of 68 down to 20, evaluating their bodies as they run through a series of four preset poses.

The qualities they are looking for are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye. All muscles should be developed to their maximum size but must also work in balance and harmony, with muscle density, separation and definition all highly valued.

The competitors are standing still, yet the effort on their contorted faces looks more in keeping with a marathon or a wrestling match. Even between poses, their bodies are tense as they stand with their arms flexed, preparing for the judges to call the next move.

When Go and the others have finished, they move to the back of the stage to stand beside the preceding group. By the end of the round, all 68 bodybuilders stand shoulder to shoulder, turning the stage into a writhing sea of muscle and tanned skin as the judges call out groups of two or three for one last evaluation.

Finally, they turn and leave the stage. Go makes a discreet thumbs-up gesture to his wife in the crowd, then disappears behind the curtain.

Three days before the Aug. 27 competition, Naoki Go sits in a swivel chair behind the reception desk of the gym he owns on the outskirts of the western Tokyo city of Tachikawa. Hidden away up a quiet road surrounded by fields of vegetables, a small but steady trickle of customers files through the door of the one-story building to work out on the weight-training machines.

Go, wearing a casual red T-shirt and a pair of white shorts, does not join them. So close to the competition, he cannot afford to upset the careful calibrations of his body.

“Competitors often make mistakes when it comes to the final period of fine-tuning,” he says. “Even for veterans, it’s difficult to get your body in peak condition. It’s not all about the size of your muscles. It’s also about the body surface and the definition, the balance. It’s about how your body is looking on the day. There are a lot of fine details involved.”

Go is entering the Japan Open for the fifth time. After finishing fourth last year he is keen to win this year’s edition, especially as it is being held in his hometown of Kawasaki.

Three days before the competition, he is deep into his final preparations and he is leaving nothing to chance. At the age of 46, with 29 years of bodybuilding experience under his belt, he has learned how to fine-tune his body for competition like a mechanic getting a Formula One car ready for a race.

Bodybuilders flex at the Japan Open, where judges had to screen 68 participants.
Bodybuilders flex at the Japan Open, where judges had to screen 68 participants. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

He has begun eating carbohydrates and taking on liquids to help “create the look” of his muscles, and has increased the frequency of his two-hour sunbed sessions from three to seven days a week, deepening his already rich mahogany tan.

He has also cut back on his work as a personal trainer in the week leading up to the competition. He describes the week as a “delicate” one, and his customers know not to bother him too much.

But Go is relaxed as he greets the people coming through the door, and he is confident that his experience will stand him in good stead in a sport dominated by competitors in their 40s and 50s.

“Experience is very important,” he says. “Fine-tuning is very difficult, but when you keep making mistakes you learn how to do it better next time. Putting in the effort is very important, and when you get into your 40s and 50s it all comes together.

“You do get some competitors who suddenly become really big in their 30s, but posing technique and knowing how to fine-tune your body come with experience. That’s what makes it interesting. It’s not all about size.”

Go was a high school baseball player who first began lifting weights at the age of 17 in an attempt to recover from an injury. He became intrigued by the way his body was changing, and gradually his interest shifted from baseball to weight training.

At 19, he entered a Kanagawa junior bodybuilding competition. He lost in the qualifying round but returned the next year to win the title, giving him the motivation to continue.

Now, almost three decades later, his weekly training regimen is controlled to the smallest of details. He spreads five color-coded notebooks across the reception counter. Each one logs the exercises he does on the five days of the week that he works out, with the details diligently recorded in neat shorthand.

Between poses, competitors' bodies are tense as they stand with the arms loaded, preparing for judges to call the next move. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Between poses, competitors’ bodies are tense as they stand with the arms loaded, preparing for judges to call the next move. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

On Mondays, Go works on his chest and stomach for two to three hours. On Tuesdays he focuses on his arms and calves. On Wednesdays he concentrates on his legs and buttocks. On Thursdays he takes a day off and then returns on Fridays to work on his shoulders and calves. On Saturdays he works on his back, then takes another day off on Sundays.

He is careful to vary his exercises, and describes the work he puts in as less about building up muscle than “stimulating my body in different ways.”

His diet is also meticulously planned. He eats protein with every meal but tries not to eat the same thing all day. So for breakfast he will eat 200 grams of fish, for lunch the same amount of beef, then for dinner the same amount of chicken. At four-hour intervals in between meals, he drinks protein shakes, scooped out of a huge bag of powder and flavored with fruits and berries.

The discipline needed to stick to his routine is formidable, but Go only enters two or three competitions a year and allows himself to ease off slightly during the offseason.

For the time being, however, getting ready for the Japan Open is the only thing on his mind. His wife, Miki, arrives to take over behind the counter, and they chat quietly as the heavy clank of weight machines and the strained grunts of customers reverberate around the gym.

“My wife helps me with my training, so when I’m competing I think of her urging me not to give up,” he says. “You get pumped up during a competition. You remember all the hard work that you’ve put in.”

Bodybuilding is quietly but steadily on the rise in Japan. The number of competitive bodybuilders registered with the sport’s governing body, the Japan Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation, has almost doubled over the past six years, from 1,798 in 2012 to 3,000 in 2017.

“More and more people are getting into body training for health reasons, and more people are deciding that they want to take that one step further,” says JBBF President Tatsuya Fujiwara. “At first they enter local competitions rather than national ones.

“Two or three years ago, we started to expand and hold competitions where the level is not so high. People can take part and enjoy themselves, and that has had an effect. There are also more fitness clubs than before. It’s much easier to get involved or enter a competition.”

The number of female bodybuilders registered with the organization is also increasing year upon year, rising from 183 in 2012 to 302 in 2016.

“On TV and in newspapers, there are more programs and stories about fitness than there used to be,” says Ayako Kuno, a 50-year-old female bodybuilder who took up the sport at the age of 38 and finished third at last year’s Japan Open.

“Nowadays, young people see muscular bodies as something that looks cool. More young women are attracted to men who have the physique of underwear models. More women themselves are also getting interested in training, and there are magazines aimed at them now. I think that has had a big impact.”

Ayako Kuno (left) takes part in the Japan Open women
Ayako Kuno (left) takes part in the Japan Open women’s competition at Sunpian Kawasaki. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Fujiwara also believes that developments within the sport have helped attract new participants. In 2012, the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness introduced a new category called men’s physique, aimed at men with less bulky yet still athletic builds. Further new categories such as men’s fitness, men’s fit model and a whole range of competitions for women have also helped open up the sport to people of all body sizes.

The JBBF, which has affiliate status with the Japanese Olympic Committee, would like to see bodybuilding become an Olympic sport.

“We have an event called classic bodybuilding, which was started with the Olympics in mind,” says Fujiwara. “It’s restricted by height and weight, and that prevents the competitors from trying to develop bodies that are too big. Competitors can turn to doping when they are trying to build up huge bodies, so classic bodybuilding limits that problem.”

Doping has plagued bodybuilding since the sport came to global prominence during the 1970s heyday of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. Fujiwara says that three Japanese bodybuilders tested positive for banned substances last year, but he is confident that the JOC’s strict oversight is helping to educate and discourage potential cheats.

“It’s difficult to say whether there are a lot or a few, but it’s probably more than people expect,” says Fujiwara. “But from all the bodybuilders that we have sent overseas to compete, none has failed doping tests. That’s a point of pride for us.

“A lot of competitors from other countries fail tests, and some know that the doping rules are strict so they simply don’t take part. Japan is taking it seriously.”

Later on the day of the Japan Open competition, Naoki Go waits at the side of the stage for his name to be called for the final. He has made it through the two preliminary rounds, and the initial field of 68 has now been trimmed to 12.

During the final, each competitor has 60 seconds alone on stage to showcase their bodies in whatever poses they choose. Go makes his way to the center of the stage, hangs his arms out in front of him with the backs of both wrists touching, then waits for his music to begin.

After going through his routine and watching his rivals do the same, Go and the other competitors leave the stage while the judges deliberate. An hour later, after trophies have been handed out in other categories, the men’s finalists are called back for the results to be announced.

This takes the form of a “posedown,” with the competitors prowling the very edge of the stage and flexing their muscles in one last preening of the feathers. As they perform, the announcer reveals the results in reverse order, picking off each disappointed competitor midpose.

As Go is fanning out his vast back muscles, his name is called. He is sixth. A crestfallen look briefly flashes across his face, then he bows to the crowd and retreats to the back of the stage. The winner is named as Seiichiro Kimura, a short, 39-year-old bald man from Osaka with a prodigious physique. He celebrates his win with another eye-popping double bicep curl.

The top-three finishers are awarded their prizes, then the finalists pose for one last photo before the curtain comes down. Twenty minutes later, Go is showered and changed and back with his family.

“There were almost 70 people in the competition, so the level was very high,” he says. “I was sixth but I feel I gave everything I had. I’ll try again next year.”

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