Tokyo Taikukan – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Most Saturdays, my family heads to the Tokyo Taikukan (Metropolitan Gym) for a family workout.  (Here in English) Both of my kids, Bailey (age 11) and Sydney (age 8 ) take a swimming lesson for an hour with a fantastic free-lance swim teacher; my husband, Marc, works out in the gym with the weights; and I swim laps in the beautiful 50-meter pool.

The whole thing is just so Japanese.  You enter the building and go to a vending machine.  At that vending machine, one buys tickets for entrance.  If you’re using the pool you buy a pool ticket; if you’re using the gym, you buy a less-expensive gym ticket. None of  the tickets are super-expensive, though.  About $7 for the pool and $5 for the gym.  All prices are less expensive for kids.  As a note, we use the second vending machine also – we rent towels.  It’s cheap – $2 – and so that’s less laundry at our house for towels when they’re washing towels anyway.  I’m not sure what the “greenest” way to do it would be, but that’s my current logic.

After the ticket vending, we go through a gate that’s similar to a subway ticket gate as it takes the ticket and spits it back out again, and then to a counter, at which we exchange our tickets for the actual towels. We show the pool tickets and the friendly staff issues each of us a locker.  No locker sharing. They insist that each person has his or her own locker.

The locker rooms themselves are lovely – clean, with wood flooring – spacious lockers.  There’s a room with mirrors and blow-dryers off to the side.  And through the doors toward the pool, there’s a set of showers and an ofuro – Japanese bath.  More on that in another post, but suffice to say that Japanese baths are a superior luxury of living here.  It is a huge, very hot tub into which people go naked.  There is no modesty in Japanese culture.  It is relaxing and decadent.  Of course, I’m describing the women’s locker room because that’s what I experience – my husband and son say the men’s room is similar, but I wouldn’t know.

It’s all very orderly.  So once we’re out at the pool, we could literally hear a pin drop.  Besides some splashing, there is silence.  No one is talking or doing anything to create a sound.  It’s almost eerie. The high ceiling and large windows create a feeling of awe, but in serious silence.

The pool is 50-meters, and there’s a 25-meter one downstairs from it.  It was built for the Olympics, so it has a big viewing area too.  The first two lanes of the pool closet to the locker rooms are generally the slow-speed lap lanes.  Then there’s a medium lane, a fast lane and then one or two blocked off for lessons.

On this particular day, two Saturdays ago, we went in as usual.  Bailey came out of the men’s room to join his teacher at the same time Sydney and I entered. The teacher, bless her, handles both kids together. She instructs one then the other together, even though they’re at very different levels.  I noted that the first lane was blocked off for some type of swim team practice.  The slow lane, in which I normally swim, was pretty crowded.

I tried the slow lane for a few laps.  The pace of it was so slow that I couldn’t swim freestyle.  I tried stopping and starting again in another spot and even swimming half a lap and turning around.  So I moved to the medium lane.  As I swam my first two laps I was pretty pleased with myself for keeping up.  At the end of the lane, I let someone pass me.  BUT, after the fourth lap, as I approached the shallow end where I had started, a lifeguard was there to stop me.  After a few seconds of listening to him in Japanese, I realized he was throwing me out of the medium lane.  I had to go into the slow lane.  He kept repeating slow slow slow.

I am a good swimmer.  Not great, but good. I used to be a lifeguard and teach lessons.  I have been through all of the Red Cross Training there is! I was not too slow for that lane.

I told the guard that the slow lane was too full.  Too slow for me.  Can’t swim there.  He just shook his head.

Meanwhile, in the medium lane, I saw someone pass someone else.  I saw someone kick someone behind him by accident.  I was by no means the slowest in that lane.

But I had two problems.  I am a woman, and moreover, I am white.

I accused the guard of being racist and I hopped out of the pool.  I said it loudly.  I said it meanly.  And I was audible in the silent, cavernous pool.

As I stomped out of there, I remembered Marc telling me that his trainer, an American, has similar problems at the Taikukan.  The people in the gym tell him he’s breaking rules when he sees other people doing what he’s doing.  “New rule,” they tell him.

Take what you want from this experience of mine.  I often thing it’s perfect here in Tokyo, but the reality is that of course it’s not.  I’m an outsider.  In many other countries, if I made the effort to learn the language, I could assimilate into society.  Not here.  I could become a native-like speaker and still not fit in or be accepted.  I live on the outskirts of society, not only by choice, but because that is the place to which I am relegated by the citizens and the government.  I will always be gai-jin, foreigner.  The police will always be allowed to ask for my ID randomly on the street.  I have been asked before. And you think Arizona is bad?  Try living in Tokyo.

I find it sad.  I love this city and it saddens me that I cannot truly belong here.  At a place like a metropolitan gym run by the city government, you would think all people would be treated equally.  That is just not the case.  It does not bode well for the future.

4 thoughts on “Tokyo Taikukan – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

  1. I read your story and find it sad that discrimination like this still happens in this century. I’ve always had a fascination with learning about Japanese culture and while they seem so forward technologically, they seem to be so backward socially. I wonder how I’d be treated if I were there, since I am black and a foreigner.

    Hang in there, though.

  2. I have to say you shouldnt worry about the gaijin ID card thing. I mean you can never look japanese if you are not so you cant really blame them for stopping you, they cant know who lives there and who is a tourist. The pool thing makes no sense at all though, maybe go with a japanese friend and see if they kick you out and not them? maybe just 1 racist lifegaurd?

  3. How do you know you would not fit in even if you learned the language? And which countries do you talk about when you say speaking the language would be enough to fit in? I speak good enough english but was fully accepted in Hawaii where I lived a few years for example. (No accusation to Hawaii, just noticing). I have a British Passport but was never really accepted as a brit by the brits when I lived there. I was born in France and was never thought of as French in spite of the fact that when I lived there it was the only place I had lived in (0-14).
    I speak Japanese fluently and have lived here a long time. I am white so I will never be mistaken for what I am not, and yes there is discrimination, but you can be accepted here at least as easily as in other places if you make the effort to learn the language…May I add I know other foreigners who will agree with me.
    Having said that I find what happened to you in the above piece disappointing too.

  4. I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium Pool last year during a business trip to Tokyo. As I entered the pool area, I was approached by a lifeguard (bald, very fit dude) who told me in Japanese that I could not wear a watch in the pool. I suggested leaving it on the deck, he said someone may steal it. I had to go back to the locker room to leave it there. I do not speak Japanese, but we understoond each other. I swam in the fast lane, and I did not get any hassle. I was swimming at about a slightly above average speed for that lane at the time. The pool was very crowded, but things seemed to move very efficiently. It must be because of all the rules. There were many rules I did not follow because I did not know them. But they were nice to let me get away with some infractions, and they sometimes gently pointed some of the rules to me. Some rules at that pool are: do not wear watches nor jewellery in the pool, do not pass in the pool, if someone catches up to you, let them go ahead at the wall, do not wear street shoes in the locker room, do not drip water all over the locker room floor. I spoke with a Japanese friend who swims there, who had similar experiences in int that pool. She was told to take off her earings.

    I am not a very fast swimmer, but I can comfortably swim in the fast lane. I am surprised that someone who cannot even stay with the middle lane swimmers can be a lifeguard. I do not know how do you get to claim discrimination when, as least in your lifeguard job, you were doubtless put ahead of more qualified candidates.

    Regarding the police in Tokyo, as I left the Immigrations and Customs area of the Narita airport, a policeman that looked like William Hung asked me for my passport. I found that very offensive, especially as I had just shown my passport to Immigrations and Customs. That is a good enough reason for me to not ever go back to Japan.

    Having said that, other than that experience, people were very friendly and helpful during my stay in Tokyo, including other police, when I got lost in the city.

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