- Working Out in Japan: Shaping the Female Body in Tokyo Fitness Clubs
The lifestyles of single, young women in contemporary Japan—their fondness for high-style consumption, their sometimes devious strategies for wielding influence in the workplace, their fascination with life abroad, and their desire to lead lives of self-fulfillment—make them the most colorful [End Page 494] characters in the growing literature in English on women in Japan.1 Laura Spielvogel's outstanding book, Working Out in Japan, introduces yet another character to this mix in the figure of the aerobics instructor, a young woman who has much in common with the OL (office lady), especially in her frustrations with inequities in the workplace. The work the aerobics instructor performs and the quest for beauty and power she embodies make her story an especially compelling one, prompting me to introduce her in a narrative style here as a way to begin my discussion of Working Out in Japan.
Remarkably toned, and deeply tanned from her frequent sessions at a salon, the aerobics instructor executes complicated routines with precision and speed. Regular exercise and smoking help her maintain what, in 1990s Japan, is popularly deemed to be the ideal female body weight of 40 kilos (88 pounds). Revealing leotards look good on her lithe frame, and she takes an almost perverse pleasure in flaunting her youthful sexuality at the gym's clients, many of whom are pale, flabby, and resistant to breaking a sweat. She loves aerobics and she has practiced hard to get good at the sport, enduring a strict, highly competitive, and expensive training program and certification process to get here. On the gym floor, she can be a martinet, suddenly stopping in the middle of leading a long routine to face her students, correcting their errors as they struggle to complete the intricate series of movements on their own. At many other times, she must adopt a gentler role with the gym's clients, posing as the sweetly encouraging mother to middle-aged women or the eager-to-please daughter to older men. Off the floor and relaxing in the back room, a crowded, hectic space for employees only, she sheds her role as a model of femininity and health, indulging in junk food, cigarettes, coarse language, and irreverent conversations with her female coworkers, releasing her frustration with the gender inequities at the club.
But such release is temporary for the hierarchy of power is well entrenched. Her supervisor will always be a man, and she cannot expect that fitness club management will welcome her into its ranks or even consider her ideas for improvements in the club. She can expect that management will demand that she constantly reflect on how she can improve her job performance, that she maintain her slimness, and that she come early or stay late to clean the club, scrubbing everything, but without proper cleaning products because management is too stingy to buy them. Male managers may scold her for the immodesty of her leotards, but this is a transgressive pleasure, a kind of cultural capital in an image-driven environment that gives her at least the feeling of power. She refuses to give this up. [End Page 495]
Working Out in Japan locates this young, female aerobics instructor within several broad fields of inquiry. Spielvogel explains issues in her project this way:
On one level, this is an ethnography of fitness clubs and their history, programs, and personnel, but on another level, it is a project on the expanding service industry, ideological contradictions and interplay between Japan and the United States, the symbolic construction and discipline of the female body, and the changing complexity of work and leisure in late-capitalist Japan and, more recently, in the severe economic recession. By examining, in tandem, the larger discourse on health, leisure, beauty, diet, and fitness, and the on-the-ground rejection or consumption of this rhetoric, I illustrate some of the ways workplaces, bodies, and lifestyles are constructed in postindustrial...