A large number of Japanese elementary school children perform exercises in the school yard.
The history of such exercises, which still play a very important role in Japanese society today, can be traced back to the waning days of the Edo Period (1603-1868) when Commodore Matthew C. Perry‘s Black Ships shocked the Japanese nation to its very core.
After the arrival of Commodore Perry, many schools run by feudal domains (藩 han) for educating the children of samurai, started teaching gymnastics as a form of paramilitary training. Initially, the Dutch system was used, but the Shogunate later employed the French system developed by Fransisco Amoros (1770-1848). Many domain schools independently choose systems from other nations, including Germany and Scandinavian countries.
When public education was organized during the early Meiji Period (1868-1912), many domain schools were converted into primary and middle schools. School exercises now started to play an increasingly important role in Japanese culture. They were not merely meant to encourage good health, but were also a symbol of unity and cooperation.
The first major Education Ordinance was promulgated in 1872 (Meiji 5). Physical education now became institutionalized and generally referred to as gymnastics (体操 taiso). Activities included marching, calisthenics and gymnastic exercises, using Indian clubs, playing the seesaw and the swings, practicing the high jump and playing soccer.
Japan’s first sports day (運動会, undokai) was held at the Naval Academy in 1874 (Meiji 7). It quickly became a mandatory activity at schools all over the country.
An especially enthusiastic promoter of calisthenics and other physical exercise at schools during this period was Minister of Education Mori Arinori (1847-1889). As the founder of Japan’s modern educational system, he saw the exercises as an excellent way to simultaneously improve the students’ health and instill patriotism.1
When the Japanese Empire started to expand into other Asian countries, the exercises were introduced there as well. Interestingly, not all of the invaded countries discontinued the policy after Japan’s defeat, and to this day exercises are still performed at schools in for example Taiwan and Indonesia.
After Japan’s defeat in WWII, the exercises played a new role as morale booster. Radio exercises (ラジオ体操 rajio taiso) broadcast by Japan’s public broadcast organization NHK became extremely popular and were even played through public loudspeaker systems in public places like parks as well as at schools at companies. It was not exceptional to see large crowds doing these exercises in unison.
Exercises are still performed at Japanese schools today. This is usually done at the same time as when attendance is taken before classes begin in the morning, so students are required to attend these sessions.
Not only schools do these exercises. A century and a half after they were first introduced, they are now also done at companies, government offices, at events, in parks and many other places. NHK still broadcasts Radio Taiso today. It has kept up with the times: these days the programs can be viewed on TV, too. Amusingly, even on TV it is called Radio Taiso.2
1 Guttmann, Allen et al (2001). Japanese Sports: A History. University of Hawaii Press, 90-92. ISBN 0824824644.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). 1920s: School Children doing Exercises, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on January 20, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/406/school-children-doing-exercises
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