Sometimes looking a little bit ridiculous can be good for your health … and your mood

081515_Memoir_illustTinkling piano music started playing over a static loudspeaker and everyone stood up and began gathering in the school field. I had no idea what was happening so I followed blindly along. I gave my friend a blank look and she explained, “This is radio calisthenics, just copy what I do.” So I fumbled through the series of stretches and movements that everyone, regardless of age, seemed to know instinctively. It was a bizarre experience.

The movements were unlike any other exercise I had done before, while the combination of piano music and narrative from a distant past was somehow comical to me. The whole thing was reminiscent of an army training drill, and yet also like a cheesy 1970s Saturday afternoon exercise program.

After researching, I discovered that radio taiso (or group calisthenics) were introduced as a com- memoration of Emperor Hirohito’s coronation in 1928. The idea was brought over from the U.S. and developed as part of a training program for Japanese soldiers in the 1930s and 1940s, thus the military feel. It was banned in 1945 for being too militaristic, but was reintroduced in 1951 by NHK Radio.

Now this lively activity is widely used by schools and companies to promote health and build morale. It is particularly common before sports meets to help the students warm up and bring the group together as a whole. This past Saturday, my children had a sports meet at their local Japanese school in Edmonton, the participants this time being a mix of Japanese and Canadian-born members. In true Japanese fashion, the meet began with several speeches detailing the daily activities and imploring all to try their best. A whistle sound- ed and three adults dressed in traditional Japanese elementary-school-style gym uniforms, complete with cute red and white beanie caps and long, knee-high white socks, came running out onto the field. There was much laughter and the mood immediately felt more relaxed.

The tinkling piano music began and everyone started moving in unison—stretching their arms, backs and legs, bending, twisting, jumping and jogging, following the lead of the three “students” at the front. They even went into the second part of the calisthenics, which I had never done. In fact, most of the Japanese people there hadn’t either. One of the moves, a combination of the can-can and jazz hands, had everyone snickering. It was fun and left everyone smiling.

With this sedentary lifestyle that we lead, I am sure that there is room for a little “radio taiso” in our lives. We promote independence and uniqueness so often in this society, but humans also crave commonality. Watching the people around me, including my children, as we did these simple, sometimes ridiculous exercises, I saw many smiles and I felt a sense of community. I highly recommend that you look up radio calisthenics on the Internet, grab a friend or family member, and giggle your way through the wonderfully quirky moves. It will warm up your body as well as your heart.


Illustration by Chieko Watanabe