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Japanese Boom in Fitness Clubs: Working Up a Sweat for Social Status

October 25, 1987|MONIKA JAIN | Associated Press

TOKYO — With more time on their hands and fatter wallets in their pockets, the latest status symbol among affluent young Japanese professionals is a fitness club membership card.

Local health experts credit changing life styles and values for new concern over health habits. But critics say the recent boom in fitness clubs is less a matter of health than a preoccupation with material things.

Membership in a club "is the newest status symbol," says Hisane Sawachi, a social critic and free-lance writer. "It's a special name card."

About 620 fitness clubs across the nation generate more than $1 billion in sales annually, according to industry figures.

Number Doubles Annually

Though the number is nowhere near the United States total of 10,000, the number of Japanese clubs almost doubles every year.

Seichi Oda, assistant director of the Health Ministry's Health Promotion and Nutrition Division, says a combination of shorter working hours and "an upgraded life style" has afforded people more time and money to devote to themselves.

Physical fitness has become a priority among those in their 20s, he says.

But some question the motives driving the weight watchers and exercise fans to the American-style health clubs.

Flagrant 'Narcissism'

Such clubs are a display of flagrant "narcissism," says Keiko Higuchi, who teaches courses on women's issues and family relations at Kasei University and has written about 30 books.

Marie de Couto, an aerobics instructor from Canada, says club patrons tend to pay more attention to the mirrors adorning the walls of aerobics studios than to serious study. "The women put on makeup before workouts instead of taking it off," she says.

Growing incomes have made young people feel they can buy anything, including status, with money, Sawachi says.

"Even if they don't have the time to go to the clubs, they become members because it matches their executive status," she says. "Japanese society is becoming increasingly materialistic."

Prices Can Be Hefty

Prices for looking good in Japan can be hefty. XAX, operated by Nichii, Japan's fourth-largest supermarket chain, offers two payment plans to patrons at its fashionable Harajuku club in Tokyo. Plan A charges an entrance fee of $179 per person or $2,850 for a family of four, plus an additional monthly fee of $86 or a one-time yearly fee running up to $850.

A second plan waives the monthly fee in return for a 5-year refundable "entrance deposit" of $3,570 per person. For a family of four, the security deposit is doubled to $7,140.

"Companies have recognized the clubs as a valuable and profitable market," says Kenzo Yamada, a researcher at the Leisure Development Center, a group affiliated with the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Quick to Explore Market

Sumitomo Realty and Development Co., Japan's third-largest real estate firm, was quick to explore the market and in 1986 joined with the American giant, Nautilus, in its foray into the fitness industry.

Two weeks after opening in Tokyo's trendy Aoyama district in November, the club had signed up more than 500 members, a company spokesman said.

Nautilus, which has 85% of the U.S. market for training machine equipment, currently operates about 1,800 fitness clubs in the United States, the spokesman said. Its offshoot, Nautilus Group Japan Inc., aims for 30 clubs and hopes to generate more than $2 million in revenue by 1989.

Some in the industry complain about a lack of qualified instructors.

'A Thousand Years Behind'

"The teaching is not developed here at all," says Clark Hatch, an American who runs a worldwide chain of fitness centers. "It's a thousand years behind." He said any company could set up a center, import huge training machines and pretend it was a fitness club.

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