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The Time I Did Calisthenics

Phish-Hoist-Interior_Frontal_old_fashioned_weightlifter

The term “calisthenics” brings to my mind an image of old-timey men and women stretching in place. The men have handlebar mustaches and old-fashioned wrestling suits, while the women have feathered hats and floor-length black skirts.

In Japan, or at least in the small fishing village where I lived, calisthenics were a daily occurrence. Shop keepers did them in their stores, fishermen did jumping jacks before boarding their boats, and the schoolchildren stretched and lunged every day before singing the school song and hearing the principal’s announcements.

I, too, was expected to participate. The movements were slow and deliberate, and had been ingrained into the memory of every citizen here since they were old enough to join in. I’d raise my arms when I was supposed to swing, and swing when everyone else threw themselves on the ground to stretch. I frequently hit the people next to me as I flailed my limbs around in a sad attempt to follow along. My students rolled their eyes at me, wondering why I couldn’t seem to get it.

Physical exertion and routines have never been my strong point, which meant that many aspects of Japan didn’t agree with me much. But I continued to try, and the students would giggle at my pathetic efforts. Field day events are frequent in Japanese schools, and the students compete between their teams to be the strongest, fastest, and most nimble. These undōkai (運動会) were the bane of my existence since they always seemed to occur on the hottest day of the season, and the teachers were required to participate.

I’d run around, carrying massive logs in my business-casual slacks, kicking up dust and sweating like a pig. I was sent out to play a sandbag collecting game with everyone over 70 in the village (which was practically the whole town), and I STILL LOST. That’s how bad I am at games in general – a feeble old woman can beat me in a FEAT OF STRENGTH.

And what do you get for winning at these field days? Why, household items such as washcloths, trash bags, and tissues! Believe it or not, some of the housewives present would have cut a bitch to get the last roll of plastic wrap. I gave my box of tissues to a woman who had a fevered look in her eye. I did not want to be stabbed that day.

But back to the calisthenics. Since 1928, Japan has been airing the Rajio Taisō (ラジオ体操), or the “Radio Exercise.” The current version that you can hear daily at 6:30 am and 3:00 pm on NHK was recorded in 1951 by the Japanese government. It features a stern-sounding man yelling numbers while you do the prescribed motions. According to this article, about 20% of the population still does it each day, along with 76.4% of elementary schools in Japan. Even some businesses make their employees do it daily. Here, you can see the bizarrely militaristic ritual in action.

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