Working Out in Japan

Shaping the Female Body in Tokyo Fitness Clubs

Working Out in Japan

Book Pages: 264 Illustrations: 23 illustrations Published: January 2003

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > East Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

Beer, ice cream, and socializing; thighs, abs, and pecs—Japanese fitness clubs combine entertainment and exercise, reflecting the Japanese concept of fitness as encompassing a zest for life as well as physical health. Through an engaging account of these clubs, Working Out in Japan reveals how beauty, bodies, health, and leisure are understood and experienced in Japan today. An aerobics instructor in two of Tokyo’s most popular fitness club chains from 1995 to 1997, Laura Spielvogel captures the diverse voices of club members, workers, and managers; women and men; young and old.
Fitness clubs have proliferated in Japanese cities over the past decade. Yet, despite the pervasive influence of a beauty industry that values thinness above all else, they have met with only mixed success . Exploring this paradox, Spielvogel focuses on the tensions and contradictions within the world of Japanese fitness clubs and on the significance of differences between Japanese and North American philosophies of mind and body. Working Out in Japan explores the ways spaces and bodies are organized and regulated within the clubs, the frustrations of female instructors who face various gender inequities, and the difficult demands that the ideal of slimness places on Japanese women. Spielvogel’s vivid investigation illuminates not only the fitness clubs themselves, but also broader cultural developments including the growth of the service industry and the changing character of work and leisure in Japan.


“A thoughtfully researched and well-written book. It provides a comprehensive case study of Tokyo fitness clubs and the contributions of the management, patrons, and staff toward the debates over identity and gender roles as experienced through the female body.” — Tracy Taylor, Sociology of Sport Journal

“Throughout the text, the author manages to effectively problematize issues of health and fitness in Japanese culture within the context of health clubs . . . . Her interdisciplinary approach would prove useful to those in folklore, cultural studies, women’s studies, and leisure/recreation studies. And it is this maintenance of the complexity of the topic at hand that makes this a satisfying read to the end, leaving the reader with a multi-layered understanding of how beauty, health, leisure and consumerism interact in the health club of Japan.” — Kristin Harris, Ethnologies

"Working Out in Japan is an excellent ethnography that surely adds to the study of leisure industries, sports, and conceptions of health and the body in Japan." — Jan Bardsley, Journal of Japanese Studies

"[A] fine contribution to the anthropology of Japan, the anthropology of sports, and gender studies." — Mariko Tamanoi, American Ethnologist

"A worthwhile and original guide to an emergent study of systemic workings in a country sometimes striking in its similarities, sometimes puzzling in its reworking of
them." — Tim Geaghan, Women's Studies

"Enjoyable, professional, and well-written. . . . Spielvogel's book . . . manages to be both scholarly and entertaining. . . . It ranges widely and fluently over a range of issues that already exist in a very scattered form in the literature and succeeds in relating them in fresh and interesting ways that should provide new models for anthropologists of Japan to take up and extend even further." — John Clammer, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Exceptionally well-done. . . . A rare and highly welcome complimentary perspective to our general understanding of the way cultural ideologies are inscribed upon the body. . . . One of the best and most convincing books I have read this summer. . . . This book is a fine ethnographic account, a theoretically sophisticated narrative, and an absolute must-read for anyone with a general interest in sport, consumer culture, the body, or the feminine in late-capitalist Japan." — Wolfram Manzenreiter, Monumenta Nipponica

"[Spielvogel's] study covers an extraordinary range of topics and examines them with uncharacteristic theoretical breadth. . . . This well-written, thoughtfully argued, accessible study is a welcome addition to the growing body of excellent ethnographies on sport, leisure, and body culture." — Thomas B. Stevenson, Journal of Anthropological Research

"This animated investigation fulfils two key needs in ethnographic writing; it is exceptionally readable, and provides sociocultural insights anchored in thoughtful participation and in acute observations of daily relationships." — Helen Johnson, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

"[T]his is a fine book, full of Japanese cultural narratives, intellectual discussions, and rich ethnographic analysis on social issues in contemporary Japan. Social scientists in Asian as well as Japanese studies would benefit from a close reading." — Etsuko Maruoka-Ng, Journal of Asian and African Studies

"Spielvogel’s ambitious and fascinating work considers a range of contemporary Japanese attitudes and ideologies regarding health, ideas of self-improvement, and gender, offering careful and incisive analysis. Moreover, as theoretical work on the body grows, Spielvogel’s conversations with Japanese club members offers a rare look at how actual people think about and perceive the body."
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"Spielvogel’s project benefits from her thorough understanding of her subject matter, and her proximity to her fieldsites and informants. . . . A welcome addition to anthropological work on Japan, Spielvogel’s book will augment a small but growing collection of English-language material on leisure practices in Japan. . . . Spielvogel does provide instructive insights into the ever-shifting landscape of leisure and work in Japan, and illuminates useful ways to think about intersections between consumption, ideologies of health and beauty, gender, and identity in that country. Her work will be a useful resource for scholars like myself who are wrestling with similar questions of sporting culture and identity in contemporary Japan." — Elise Edwards, Anthropology Quarterly

"Spielvogel’s work is a unique topic in English language academe and is a solid anthropological study. . . . Her first hand experience lends color and insight to the discussion of how societal pressures shape the body and exercise habits." — Yuki Allyson Honjo, Asahi Shimbun

"Spielvogel's book could not be more timely. . . . [T]his book represents a welcome addition to the burgeoning corpus of anthropological works on sports, health, gender and other 'body projects' in contemporary Japan." — Joanee Cullinane, Social Science Japan Journal

"This study demonstrates that a focus on the body can provide new insights into the workings of contemporary society. Japan too, it seems, has many of the features of a 'somatic society.'" — Vera Mackie, Asian Studies Review

Working Out in Japan is a theoretically sophisticated analysis informed by wide reading and well-grounded in the author’s extensive experience as a fitness instructor.” — Allen Guttmann, coauthor of Japanese Sports: A History

”Laura Spielvogel views notions of the body and gender in contemporary Japanese popular culture from an interesting new angle. This highly original work offers an important complement to the Western-dominated literature on the body, sports, and fitness by describing the distinctly Japanese body culture that is a product of both regional traditions and transnational influences.” — Susan Brownell, author of Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People's Republic


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Laura Spielvogel is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Western Michigan University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1. The History of Aerobics in Japan: The Sexy American Import 33

2. The Discipline of Space 61

3. The Discipline of Bodies 85

4. Cigarettes and Aerobics: Frustrations with Gender Inequities in the Club 115

5. Young, Proportionate, Leggy, and Thin: The Ideal Female Body 142

6. Selfishly Skinny or Selflessly Starving 174

Conclusions 207

Notes 215

Bibliography 227

Index 243
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3049-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3037-0
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