Radio Taisō: A Nuanced History of a Nearly 100-Year-Old Tradition

Radio Taisō: A Nuanced History of a Nearly 100-Year-Old Tradition

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People performing radio taiso in a factory
Picture: sasaki106 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
It has its origins in life insurance and has even been a tool of colonialism. Learn about the long, complicated history of radio taisō.

What started off as a life insurance company’s business strategy cartwheeled into a vehicle for colonialism. It’s even been the centerpiece of a McDonald’s ad campaign. Radio taisō has been, and to this day remains, a big part of life in Japan and abroad.

Radio Taisō Today

It happens every morning between 6:30 and 6:40 in every one of Japan’s 47 prefectures: radio taisō (ラジオ体操; rajio taisou).

Radio taisō is a 10-minute exercise program that has been around since 1925. The Japan Broadcasting Corporation, better known as NHK, broadcasts a piano recording. No enthusiastic trainer’s voiceover.

A cheery melody. But soft enough for morning ears.

A bouncy tempo. But mild enough for elderly participants. Nothing like your spinning class soundtrack.

Those assembled around the radio have already memorized the sequence of stretching positions. They don’t need a voice actor with too much punch in his speech.

Arms up and down. Squats and jumps. A lot goes on in radio taisō.

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And yet, groups of Japanese move in perfect unison in each of the +400 parks and school yards registered as radio taisō locations in Tokyo.

Even 400 miles (600 kilometers) away from Tokyo (the world’s most populated city), in Tottori (the least populated prefecture), there is one registered location for radio taisō.

A daily 10-minute ritual

The big picture: in a park next to the bustling Shibuya Crosswalk and a parking lot behind a community center in remote Tottori, and the hundreds of other locations across Japan, people take 10 minutes out of their morning for radio taisō.   

In July and August, schoolchildren on vacation join in.

It’s common for local post offices to hand out radio taisō attendance cards to kids, which they receive stamps and stickers for attending the morning ritual.

Apparently, GOOD JOB! stickers are effective for getting kids out of bed.

McDonald’s figured that radio taisō is good for business too.

Until social distancing restrictions cracked down on outdoor group activities in 2020, McDonald’s in Japan would hand out radio taisō attendance cards shaped like burgers and fries.

If kids brought the cards back to McDonald’s with more than two stamps proving that they attended at least twice, they’d get a free present.

But really, it’s a trap for the accompanying parents who think, “might as well order since we’re here.”

With the Japanese government having downgraded COVID-19 to flu level from May this year, there is hope that McDonald’s will issue radio taisō attendance cards again.

McDonald’s gifts or no gifts, nobody wants to miss out on radio taisō when it has long been perceived as an important ingredient to living a healthy life in Japan.

Radio Taiso: The key to longevity?

Regularly practicing radio taisō has been linked to longevity in Japan.

The authors of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life interviewed over a hundred of the oldest people living in Okinawa, a blue zone with the highest concentration of centenarians in the world. They found that virtually everyone joins radio taisō every morning.

“Even the residents of the nursing home we visited dedicated at least five minutes every day to it, though some did the exercises from their wheelchairs,” the authors wrote.

Adhering to its slogan itsudemo, dokodemo, daredemo (いつでも、どこでも、だれでも), or “whenever, wherever, whoever,” radio taisō has made it into the morning routines of Japanese from different age and fitness backgrounds.

Community building and social aspects of radio taisō are equal drivers as its health benefits. That’s why largescale events like this summer’s radio taisō national tour (夏期巡回ラジオ体操・みんなの体操会) starting July 20th and ending August 31st will attract large crowds of early birds to 42 big venues across Japan.

The tour stop in Yokohama City of Kanagawa Prefecture on August 20th is a special one. It’s called the ten million radio taisō (1000万人ラジオ体操). The name speaks for itself.

Origins in…insurance?

Radio taiso at a company
Picture: yosan / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Japan Post Insurance (かんぽ生命) is the host of the radio taisō national tour this summer. But why is a life insurance company investing in radio taisō?

Life insurance companies don’t run well when their insured are unhealthy. Teishin-shō (逓信省), which was the Japanese government’s department for life insurance between 1885 and 1949, had a very unhealthy Japanese population to insure.

Japan’s economy was rundown. Working conditions were bad. Cities were overpopulated. Nutrition was poor. This all boiled down to an average life expectancy of 40.

Teishin-shō didn’t want to keep paying out life insurance to families every time someone hit 40 and dropped dead. So, Teishin-shō began to look for ways to promote longevity.

 In 1923, director Inokuma Teiji looked to the West for answers. He visited Metropolitan Life Insurance (known as MetLife today) in the US.

There, Inokuma stumbled upon his American counterparts’ plans for a radio exercise program. After returning to Japan, Ikunoma introduced the concept of radio taisō in Teishin Kyōkai Magazine.

In 1925, Metropolitan Life Insurance began its radio exercise program in six US cities that included New York, Washington, and Boston.

Initially a failure

That same year, radio taisō debuted in Japan. However, the infrastructure for radio devices was insufficient for the program to stick. It failed quickly.

At the time, department head Tanabe learned of Czechoslovakia’s exercise club Sokol and became even more convinced that Japan needed structured exercise activities. So, he pushed for radio taisō again.

In 1929, Teishin-shō and NHK got together to plan radio taisō’s comeback. They decided that timing its reintroduction with the Shōwa Emperor’s enthronement’s broadcast would help radio taisō reach the most audiences.

So on November 10th of 1929, radio taisō came onto the radio to commemorate the new emperor. The program was named Kokumin Hoken Taisō (国民保健體操), or the Nation’s People’s Health Preservation Exercises.

The next year, an officer at the Kanda Manseibashi Police Station took his radio down to the playground of Sakuma Elementary School (now Sakuma Park). He did it as an experiment with the intended outcome of helping schoolchildren maintain a structured lifestyle during the off months of school in summer.

The policeman’s experiment definitely worked. Even today, school children and residents assemble on school playgrounds in the summer months to practice radio taisō.

Radio taisō continued throughout World War II. It only came to a halt when the GHQ, which handled the occupation, demilitarization, and democratization of Japan, banned the practice.

Red-flagging radio taisō

The sight of the Japanese moving in sync with a radio broadcast was off-putting for the Americans. The GHQ officers perceived radio taisō as a threat to their mission. Radio taisō was written off as a control tactic that suppressed the Japanese into total obedience under militarism.

The Japanese were quick to demand that the ban be lifted. So, in 1946, the GHQ agreed to give radio taisō back to the Japanese under one condition: change the music and movements.

Japan accepted the terms. However, the new routine had difficult movements that people couldn’t keep up with. So, radio taisō was canceled yet again the next year.

Despite being canceled twice already, radio taisō was already so engrained in the lives of the Japanese that some were willing to revive it another time.

Former Olympic gymnast Kiichiro Toyama from the 1936 Berlin games and other top Japanese athletes came together to choreograph the perfect radio taisō. It was Toyama’s team that came up with the concept of itsudemo, dokodemo, daredemo. This meant that women were included in radio taisō’s target audience. The movements were planned so that it was skirt-friendly.

Toyama knew how to convince the GHQ. He had worked as a trainer in Japan’s air force during the war. He trained soldiers using radio taisō. And he wasn’t afraid to perform the exercise routine in front of GHQ officers to prove that they weren’t plotting World War III. They just wanted to have their morning routine back.

Herd mentality

Toyama got the green light from GHQ. Radio taisō returned to air in May of 1952.

GHQ’s concerns were not baseless.

Before World War II, radio taisō was just like brushing one’s teeth. It was a habit, and a healthy one.

But as Japan began its plunge into militarism and imperialism, radio taisō became more than a routine. It became a tool for colonization – a brainwasher for nationalism.

When radio taisō debuted in 1925, it wasn’t just health-conscious Japanese partaking in the new program. Taiwanese who were colonized under Japan’s imperial army had to do it too. At one point, it became imperative for the Japanese army stationed in Taiwan to practice radio taisō at the exact same time as people did in Japan. So, imperial Japan canceled the time difference and pushed Taiwanese clocks up an hour earlier.

Japan went on to colonize more of East Asia. 10 years after the first radio taisō broadcast, the Japan Broadcast Corporation (today’s NHK) made a collection of notes about radio taisō written by colonial subjects. This historical document contains more than 200 accounts from Korea and some accounts from China.

On the same day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the Japanese army invaded Thailand where they set up a broadcast station for radio taisō (among other uses).

Wartime magazines have reports of journalists “feeling encouraged by the sound of radio taisō” when they were at the frontlines.

Radio taisō was no longer a morning habit. It was intricately bound to nationalism. Clinging onto the belief that one is serving their country made survival easier and bearable in the trenches.

Radio taisō would be practiced not in isolation but within a series of ceremonial rituals. The morning would start with singing Japan’s national anthem in front of a raised Japanese flag, bowing in the direction of where the emperor was, radio taisō, three chants of banzai (万歳), and one simultaneous clap to end it.

The GHQ’s skepticism of radio taisō could have easily banned the practice forever, leaving no chance for the program to reach us in 2023.

Today again, overseas

Woman exercising (radio taiso article)
Picture: Ushico / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Shedding its World War II connotations, radio taisō was able to move forward as the Japanese did.

Japan was entering its high economic growth period. Radio taisō became one of the pillars of success as it became popular for entire office floors to practice it together before starting work.

After returning to its former heights in Japan, radio taisō went abroad.

In 1978, a radio taisō event was held in Liberdade in São Paulo, Brazil, an area where many Japanese had settled.

Radio taisō crash courses were held in Mongolia and Peru in the late 2010s.

However, Brazil is where radio taisō has taken off the most outside of Japan.

June 18th is officially Radio Taisõ Day in São Paulo, Brazil. An annual event for radio taisō that holds a capacity of ten thousand participants takes place and the exercise routine has become a compulsory subject in physical education courses in some schools.

Radio taisō does so well in Brazil because the country had the right infrastructure for it. In addition to the radio taisō CDs in the Portuguese language, the large Nikkei population in Brazil that lived in safe neighborhoods with parks helped radio taisō spread.

One thing is clear: despite its complicated history, radio taisō appears here to stay.

The Japanese Who Came to Call Brazil Home

Sources

[1] 【ラジオ体操】歴史(起源~現在)を解説!最初に広めたのは誰?. スポスルMagazine 

[2] 100年続くラジオ体操が世界に広がる 現在の3代目は早70年!. AREAdot.10th

[3] 全国のラジオ体操実施会場. NPO法人全国ラジオ体操連盟

[4] ニュースリリース. McDonald’s Holdings

[5] 夏期巡回・特別巡回ラジオ体操・みんなの体操会. かんぽ生命

[6] Japan is home to the world’s longest-living people—here’s the 5-minute exercise they do every single day. CNBC

[7] ラジオ体操第1「立位と座位」伸びの運動から深呼吸まで. YouTube

[8] ラジオ体操の歴史. かんぽ生命

[9] 海外におけるラジオ体操等の普及状況に関する調査研究. 簡易保険加入協会

[10]ラジオ体操Q&A. かんぽ生命

[11] History of Sokol. Sokol Museum & Library

[12] 博物館ノート. Postal Museum Japan

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