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Traditions and working culture an obstacle to fitness club growth in Japan

Traditions and working culture an obstacle to fitness club growth in Japan
September 1, 2020

The potential of Asia’s fitness market is one many international brands are keen to exploit, reaching out to today’s millennials who make up the largest percentage of gym members around the world.

However, in Japan, a lot of young people don’t seem to be as eager to join gyms as they are in other major economies and fitness participation involves a very different demographic.

While the Asian fitness market shows an average member penetration rate of 4.28% (in 2017) and in nations like Australia and New Zealand, the rate comes at 15.3% and 13.6% respectively, the percentage of gyms members in Japan is a mere 3.33%.

So why is the fitness culture not as big in Japan?

Cultural and Social Barriers
Among the Japanese white-collar workers, a big tradition is to visit the izakaya bars to enjoy some food and drinks with enough time to rest and do it all again the next day, embracing the ritual of nommunication (afterwork drinks).

Although after work socialising happens around the world, in Japan this tradition is carried down from previous generations and, in many companies, taken very seriously.

Japan is also known for its work-ethic, with long working hours making the process of finishing work and going to the gym seem almost impossible. The official working week in Japan is 40 hours with limited overtime for additional work. However,

Many employee’s work long hours leaving little time for anything else throughout their busy days, so the last thing on people’s minds is making it to gym after a hard day’s work.

Considering this challenge, the Japanese work ethic and comparisons to the use of gyms in other developed economies, John Holsinger, Asia-Pacific Director at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) explains “Japan has an extremely intense lifestyle for white-collar professionals compared to other developed countries (so) young people generally have little to no time to exercise.”

Advising that market focus for the fitness industry in Japan seems to shift towards the elderly as most gym members fall in the over 60s category, Holsinger notes “older generation make up most of the club numbers.”

With data from the Japan Sports Council revealing that physical and athletic ability showed more efficiency in elderly people than those in their 30s and 40s and with gyms often catering for an older demographic, their image may be a deterrent for younger members.

Explaining why the elderly are more physically active, Holsinger states “historically, the industry started from swimming clubs, and pools are still a key component in many ‘more mature’ gyms.

“The youth are not as focused on swimming as it hasn’t achieved the recent high visibility that ‘working out’ has.

“(In addition) clubs are focusing on programming for their existing elderly, retired, ageing population and memberships.”

This leads to another social factor that may be impacting the fitness industry - Japan’s decreasing and ageing population.

With fewer young people entering the workforce and becoming consumers, so the demand for future gym memberships falls.

As Holsinger comments “Japan’s low birth rate and ageing population is a key concern for both their government and our industry, and this trend is continuing, which limits the room for the growth of new members.”

Market Potential
For new gym owners who want to break onto the scene, it may prove difficult as most gyms are owned by large chains who dominate the market.

As Holsinger points out that “large chains dominate the space (with the) top five chain clubs dominating 58% of the market - leaving limited room for new players to enter the market with scale, except for smaller studios.”

Here, the potential seems to be for smaller, new or lesser known brands to cater for young adults in their 20 and 30s, or for female only clubs, particularly as cultural barriers may also prevent new, larger scale gyms being introduced that cater for younger members.

Holsinger adds “cultural taboos mean older women do not wish to work out with males nor see themselves in the mirror when working out.

“Female-only clubs are taking hold, but again many with older populations.”

A positive sign of growth saw 1,300 more fitness clubs opening across the country between 2011 and 2016, with some outside traditional ‘gym culture.’

Here Holsinger advises that “movement to yoga, Pilates and boutique experiences is bringing in many ‘younger age groups’, and these club counts are not usually included in many historical industry statistical reviews.”

The Japanese Lifestyle
Although Japan’s ‘gym culture’ may not be on the scale as in many developed economies, not being physically active does not necessarily mean being unhealthy.

Widely considered as a ‘healthy’ country, currently, Japan has one of the highest rates of life expectancy in the world (at 83 years old) while also having the lowest rate of obesity at 3.7%.

A big part of this comes down to the traditional Japanese diet which mainly consists of fish, seafood, and plant-based foods with low amounts of sugar and fat. This diet is also naturally rich in protein, calcium, potassium, Iron, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and E.

Also, in Japanese cities, most people walk to and from their destinations along with making the most of their impeccable public transport services.

In comparison with the USA, a study conducted by The Food Industry Centre revealed the average American walks between 4,000 and 5, 000 steps per day. Japan averaged 7,168 steps per day.

In fact, a study from the Safe Route Partnership revealed that only 1.7% of Japanese school children take the bus and that 98% of children walk to school with their parents or in small groups.

This daily habit is carried into their adult years with 41.3% of Japanese people claiming this was their preferred method of exercise, along with light physical activities.

So, while not everyone goes to the gym, Japan’s health levels are high while the desire to ‘look good’ appears to be as prevalent as in western cultures.

As far as ‘looking good’, what seems attractive in western society, may differ in Japan.

Many of Japan’s celebrities are more slender in build, so men don’t feel much pressure to be overly muscular.

In western society, men with big muscles and large physics seems to be an attractive quality whereas in Japan only 14.7% of people claimed to use actual gym equipment like weights when working out.

As a result, the traditions and habits picked up from previous generations have made gym culture seem less of a priority in Japan, coupled with a working lifestyle that leaves limited room for the fitness industry to develop.

Although the industry is gradually on the rise with new trends appearing, the fitness industry faces a challenge in penetrating the market among younger Japanese.

Images: Central Sports Tokyo (top), exhibitors at the 2017 Health and Fitness Japan Expo/Sportec Japan (middle) and Anytime Fitness opens another Japanese club (below).

About the author

Richard Young

Freelance writer, copywriter, and editor

Richard Young is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. Originally from Ireland, he moved overseas in 2015 and began his writing journey.

From travelling and living overseas, cultural, and social differences are a go-to topic, as well as the social changes throughout multi-cultural countries.

He has found cultural diversity a fascinating avenue to explore and continues to develop new angles of interest.

Contact inquiries welcome via

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