Answerman What Are Those Radio Exercises Kids Do In Japan?
by Justin Sevakis,
Anime often depict radio calisthenics as something geared toward children or older people, but everyone always appears aware of what it is. Are radio calisthenics as ubiquitous as they appear? And what made them so popular?
Radio Taisou, or radio exercises, have been a thing in Japan since 1928. Played daily on NHK Radio and Television stations at 6:30am and repeated a few times during the day, they're still followed by an estimated 20% of the country. The broadcast is always essentially the same: a happy, lilting (and now famous) piano melody while a friendly man gives instructions and counts. The program switches between two different 3-minute routines, incorporating 13 movements each. The exercises are generally light calisthenics, and nothing too challenging for young children or the elderly. It's just intended to stretch you out and get the blood flowing early in the morning.
The story goes that the idea originated in America, with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (now better known as MetLife) sponsoring a similar exercise program in New York City and Washington D.C. in the early days of radio. It wasn't much of a hit here, and the show didn't last very long, but some guys from Japan's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications Postal Life Insurance Bureau heard it and proposed doing something similar in Japan. After all, it's in the best interests of a life insurance company to make sure people are healthy.
Group exercises were a perfect use for radio in Imperialist Japan, which placed a strong emphasis on physical fitness and military-like uniformity across all walks of life. (I mean, they WERE constantly invading other countries at this point.) Before long, they became a popular part of everyday life. Once radios became small and portable, people would congregate in parks to work through routines in groups. The exercises are now the longest-running program in Japanese broadcast history, having run nearly continuously for approaching 90 years. (There was only one break in its broadcast, immediately following the end of WWII.)
Since Radio Taisou has been more or less unchanged since just after WWII, it's considered to be very old-fashioned. And since Japan's large number of elderly people are often retired and are up early anyway, the group exercises are pretty popular among that group. Needless to say, none of this makes it very popular among young people or more individualistic adults in Japan.
Many companies have enforced participation in the radio exercises. Kids learn to loathe them, since many children are forced to get up early every day during summer vacation and go to the park to do the exercises. To incentivize them, they're given a stamp book to keep track of attendance. A fully-filled attendance book can be traded in for cheap prizes. Nonetheless, the unpleasant memory is enough that many adults wince when they hear the theme song being played.
Radio exercises have been depicted a few times in anime and Japanese films. Sometimes they're referenced to evoke annoyance and dread, such as in Gantz. Other times, they're used to imply that someone has old-school Japanese values, like in Battle Royale. Probably the most detailed, realistic depiction I've seen has been in Only Yesterday, where they're an essential part of protagonist Taeko's miserable summer of boredom.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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