Finding community abroad: Navigating Tokyo's not-so-inclusive gym culture

As someone who identifies as queer with tattoos, I've experienced the unique challenges of finding acceptance. 🏋

4 mins
Written by:
Omi Koulas

Are you planning a trip to Tokyo and looking to stay fit while exploring this vibrant city?

As someone who identifies as queer with tattoos, I've personally experienced the unique challenges of finding acceptance in Tokyo's gym culture. Join me as I share my journey, highlighting the lessons learned and the camaraderie discovered in navigating the city's fitness scene.

Understanding the Gym Landscape

When it comes to working out in a new city, it can be daunting to find the right gym. From casual fees, diverse cultures and etiquette, and whether foreigners are welcomed or not (and whether that’s explicitly clear, too), there’s a lot to consider. But fear not, because Tokyo has a thriving fitness culture with a wide range of options. From Pilates and general exercise to weightlifting and various sports, you'll find plenty of gyms and fitness centres to suit your needs.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind before diving into Tokyo's gym scene. Firstly, be prepared for the higher prices compared to other cities. Gym memberships in Tokyo can be a bit expensive, so it's a clever idea to budget accordingly. If you’re travelling without an ounce of speaking the Japanese language, you’ll struggle to even get into a gym. Language barriers will come into play, as not all gyms cater to English speakers.  

So, my first tip is to research, research, and research some more. Search online for nearby gyms or sports centres for your stay and find the ones that have honest reviews and plenty of information, and if possible, speak to a local about what they recommend. My advice is to check out public gyms and sports complexes like the Minato City Sports Center or Shinjuku Sports Center. They are often open to everyone, including migrants and foreign visitors, and offer heaps of facilities besides the traditional gym, such as basketball courts, saunas, and swimming pools.  

There are also plenty of private gyms in Tokyo, each with its own unique offerings and prices. Whether you're looking for a well-known chain like Gold's Gym or Anytime Fitness, or prefer exploring local options, Tokyo has something for everyone. In any case, doing your due diligence beforehand is advisable, especially if you want a comfortable experience.  

Finding a Safe Space

Being a queer individual with tattoos in Tokyo can present some unique challenges when it comes to finding acceptance and fitting into the city's gym culture. While attitudes towards tattoos have been gradually shifting in Japan, traditional perceptions and conservative norms still prevail in certain settings. However, there are ways to navigate these challenges and create a space where you can both fit in and express your authentic self.

One of the main challenges you may encounter is the association of tattoos with the Yakuza, the Japanese organised crime syndicate. This societal stereotype can lead to some gyms, and even the magical world of onsens, having strict no-tattoo policies, as they aim to maintain a certain image and distance themselves from any association with criminal elements.

I was training at the Taito Riverside Sports Center and had to take off my jumper because I was getting pretty hot from heavy lifting. Almost immediately, like they could sense I had ink, a staff member rushed over to me and politely told me that I had to cover up. They were incredibly sweet and not rude at all, almost apologetic, but rules are rules. I had to cover up and could continue my workout.

As a result, you might face restrictions or disapproval when it comes to showing your tattoos openly in some fitness facilities. The best option here is to cover up and wear long sleeves and tracksuits to the gym so that no tattoos are showing, and you’ll be allowed to train as anyone else.

If you don’t identify as a binary gender or are transgender, there’s an unfortunate challenge to face. Japan is still behind in acceptance and regulations when it comes to identity, so finding a gym to train at might be tricky. Look for gyms that explicitly state their commitment to inclusivity and diversity. Seek out facilities that prioritise creating a safe and welcoming environment for all individuals, regardless of gender identity. Online forums and LGBTQ+ community groups can be valuable resources for finding queer-friendly gyms in your area.

When it comes to finding an accepting gym environment, it's helpful to consider factors such as the gym's location, reputation, and community. Some gyms may have a more progressive outlook and actively foster a diverse and inclusive atmosphere. They’ll often explicitly say that they’re tattoo or LGBT friendly. These spaces can provide a sense of belonging and camaraderie, allowing you to connect with like-minded individuals who share similar experiences.

If you encounter any issues or face judgment due to your tattoos or identity, engaging in open and respectful communication can be helpful. Speak to the gym staff or management about your concerns, share your perspective, and seek a mutually acceptable solution. In some cases, they may be willing to make accommodations or find a compromise that respects both their policies and your individuality.

Navigating Gym Etiquette in Tokyo

A few subtle nuances can make your fitness journey smoother. While it shares similarities with the west, understanding these cultural quirks will make your time better. Let's uncover some gym etiquette secrets that will help you blend in seamlessly.

Remember to carry identification and proof of address, as many Tokyo gyms require them for entry. I forgot this a few times when visiting public sports centres and was refused entry. Private gyms, in particular, may also ask for identification during the membership process due to their higher fees. However, if you have a local connection or someone who can vouch for you, you might be eligible for discounted rates at public gyms.

When it comes to footwear, Tokyo gyms take cleanliness seriously. Outdoor shoes are a big no-no, so make sure to pack a pair of clean indoor shoes. Don't forget to remove your outdoor shoes before stepping into the locker room or even using the restroom. Some gyms provide special toilet slippers for this purpose, adding an interesting twist to your gym experience.

Oh, and a quick heads up: Japanese gyms usually have a strict policy against photography. Be mindful of the signs and resist the temptation to take gym selfies. This way, you'll steer clear of any trouble and show respect to your fellow gym-goers.

One essential item to have in your gym bag is a towel. It's not just for drying off; it's a symbol of courtesy and hygiene. Wiping off your sweat during workouts is considered polite. And while you're at it, don't forget to clean and reset the settings on any machines you use, ensuring a seamless transition for the next person.

By embracing these rules, you'll seamlessly blend into Tokyo's vibrant fitness scene and be well on your way to a rewarding workout experience. So, grab your towel and get ready to sweat it out with the locals!

As we strive for inclusion and acceptance in Tokyo's gym culture, it's important to note that progress is being made. In June, the Japanese Diet, the national legislature of Japan, passed a law to promote understanding and prevent unfair discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While there is still work to be done, this is a step in the right direction.

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