MG Meets Leo Fuchigami*, a Japanese-Canadian corporate wellness entrepreneur, life coach, fitness specialist, and community builder from Vancouver. He provides bilingual fitness team building services and wellness workshops to Fortune 500 companies across Tokyo as the founder of CoFit Movement. Additionally, he is the Fitness Specialist at Apple Japan, freelance group fitness instructor, life coach at Principle Fitness, and Asics Tokyo fitness influencer. In this exclusive interview with MG Leo talks about finding your niche and differentiating yourself from the rest through community building…
From Vancouver to Tokyo. How? Why? Please could you tell us what led you to Japan…
I was born in Toronto to Japanese parents, but raised in Vancouver for my K-12 + uni years. I majored in Marketing + International Business, with a specialisation in Mandarin-Chinese and business in China. Upon graduation, I moved to Korea and worked as a middle school English teacher for a year. I then spent five months in Latin America, mostly in Lima, Peru, before I moved back to Vancouver. After several years in Vancouver and another extended trip to South America, I decided to fulfil my childhood dream of living and working in Japan to find the answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’, a question many bi/multicultural children struggle with in their formative years. I think it was never a question of if, but when I would go to Japan. Throughout my childhood, I had visited for a week or two during the summers to meet my grandparents and extended family, but had never experienced Japan as an adult. In 2014, I determined that, if I did not move to Japan now, the opportunity may not arise again. So, I bought a one way ticket and started looking for work.
As a Japanese-Canadian, how did I navigate the working culture in Japan?
Prior to leaving for Japan, I was warned by some friends and family of the difficulties of working in the Japanese work environment, and the unique discrimination that nikkei (Japanese born and raised overseas) would face, as a result of looking like a Japanese-person and having a Japanese name, yet not living up to the expectations (of etiquette, linguistic ability, etc.) of a Japanese person. To my surprise, I found that I was a massive beneficiary of positive discrimination. There is, in fact, a need for, and to some degree, a reverence for, bicultural bilinguals in multinational organisations. Putting aside the influence of nepotism, there is a natural gravity pulling bicultural bilinguals towards middle management from a purely functional perspective. To generalise, they serve as bridges between expat upper management and domestic employees; regional/global departments and domestic departments.
When I first started working in Japan, I felt my linguistic capabilities and cultural understanding were wholly inadequate. But, language and etiquette, are, in fact, things that can be learned. Personality, culture, and perspective, however, are much more fixed. I realised that my outspokenness, my inclination to create and disrupt, and my ability to empathise innately with both cultures (Japan vs. West) were highly valued and rewarded. In some environments, these traits can be seen as a nuisance and be suppressed, but in others, they are cherished.
In Vancouver, Canada, my linguistic skills and bicultural background would only be useful in the tourism, education, and trade sectors. But, in Tokyo, what might have been tertiary considerations in Vancouver, become primary considerations, automatically elevating my stature and value as an employee. It is something I do not like to admit, but it is a reality, and one I am determined to use for good and rather than justify complacency.
How did you get involved in the fitness industry in Tokyo?
I did not enter the fitness industry in a traditional manner through the institutional side. My first interaction as a ‘player’ in the industry was when I joined the leadership of an outdoor fitness community called SOGO Fitness. It was, and still is, on a purely volunteer basis. Through the efforts of all the leaders and supporters in SOGO, we have grown the community to over 7000 members in Tokyo and nearly a dozen events per week. As a result, we have had the great fortune of working with many organisations in the sports apparel sector such as Nike, Lululemon, Reebok & GAP, as well as those from the tech and F&B sectors. The skills and connections I organically developed through my involvement in SOGO helped establish me (as well as many other SOGO leaders) as someone that can lead group fitness + build communities + organise event logistics + connect with decision makers at lateral organisations. By leveraging the reputation, skills and network that I built through my involvement at SOGO, I was able to ‘officially’ enter the fitness industry in 2018 already differentiated from existing players in the market.
How has the perception of fitness changed in Tokyo?
Tokyo is definitely experiencing a fitness boom. As recently as four years prior, fitness fanatics were often typecast as goofy caricatures on TV, but these days, it is increasingly cool to be fit. What was once considered a hobby for the fringe is now becoming a mainstream aspiration. This can be seen all across Tokyo. The chain gyms have 10x’d their locations in the last decade. There seems to be a new CrossFit box, boutique gym, or studio opening every week. Terms like ‘athleisure’ and ‘fitness influencer’ have started to become universally recognised.
How is the fitness industry different between Japan and Canada/US?
The US is, far and away, the epicenter of global fitness innovation. Whether it is gym chains, sports apparel, fitness apps, fittech, supplements, equipment manufacturers, the newest trendy fitness classes, or IG influencers, the US generally dominates. Japan has a global presence in traditional sports category apparel (i.e. running shoes from Asics, swimming wear from Mizuno), etc. but otherwise is, from my view, mostly taking a copy and localise approach. That is to say, for local companies to duplicate the business models of successful English-based fitness apps, services and business models. Think Soul Cycle (US) vs. Feel Cycle (Japan). I think, for the time being, the ‘low hanging fruit’ of fitness disruption and business opportunity in Japan will be of this variety.
Where I think Japan may best be able to export fitness innovation overseas in the short to medium term are:
- Niche application IoT & AR/VR fittech
- Services leveraging the Japan association. Marie Kondo is the best example of this. She has become the de facto queen of cleaning in the English-speaking world, and she has done so with limited English speaking ability
- Japanese-style supplements. Somewhat similar to the above, Japan has a lot of soft power as it relates to quality, health, safety, attention to detail, food innovation, and mindfulness. Additionally, Japanese packaged goods exporters already have the global supply chains in place, so domestic supplement makers that can properly exploit these advantages should be able to find success
Name three things you love about Japan and three things you’d love to change (can be work or life related)
- The sense of freedom and lack of anxiety that results from living in one of the safest countries in the world, with regard to personal safety
- The infrastructure – from the nationwide railway system, to the comprehensive telecommunications networks, to the clean and organised streets
- The desire to balance new with old. It’s easy to criticise the stubbornness with which Japan/Japanese seem to cling to old traditions/processes/media icons/perspectives, etc., especially by those with the moniker of innovator or disruptor. However, there is an unspoken cost to constant disruption, especially felt by the old, the less wealthy, the rural, and the less adventurous. There is an exhaustion that comes from constant innovation. Plus, there is a serenity that comes from seeing the same person on TV for 40 years, visiting a temple that has existed for 1000 years in a commercial district, and buying paper books in a digital district
I would love to change…
- The insular perspective and mindset that some Japanese hold. Some Japanese, when given the opportunity to travel, would choose to travel to other parts of the country, rather than overseas. Whether it is anxiety/fear of the unknown or the limited knowledge of what the rest of world has to offer, they do not desire to even know. I believe it is imperative for Japanese to have a greater sense of adventure in this matter in order to broaden the sense of empathy beyond the country, and understanding for the tribulations of immigrants. This is not a unique situation to Japan, but I see it as a bigger issue here than most other nations I have lived in. It is a shame, because Japanese have the freedom to travel and the means to, yet some choose not to. There are many around the world that dream of the ocean or the amazon, but due to their circumstances, may not be permitted to, or simply cannot
- Smoking indoors at restaurants with pseudo-insulation. Although this is changing, I can’t wait for Japan to catch up with most other developed nations. It is an unavoidable hazard to customers and employees alike, for the benefit of a shrinking minority
- The difficulty with which many Japanese have in expressing their introspective thoughts. Japanese are adept at considering the interconnectedness of things, but falter in individual introspection. As an individual that enjoys deep conversations, I find myself unable to connect with many Japanese because of their aversion and/or inability to join such conversations
Please tell us more about your business – CoFit Movement: what are its aims and what makes it unique among fitness startups…
A lot can be deduced from our slogan, ‘Connecting People Through Fitness’. We want to create the best fitness services and products that are designed to connect people. This can span B2B to B2C, but we have decided, strategically, to focus on becoming the best bilingual corporate fitness services provider in Tokyo first.
But, our ambitions do not stop there!
Q2 2018 Launched specialised fitness team building service called Office Connection Fitness
Q3 2018 Launched an innovative partner training certification program for fitness instructors called Partner Resistance Training
Q4 2018 Launched a fitness music video production service called X Productions
Q1/2 2019 Expand portfolio of services with a heavier emphasis on corporate wellness workshops
Q3 2019 Hire additional instructors with different fitness and wellness specialties and become a bilingual corporate trainer dispatch platform
Q4 2019+ Franchise to other cities and countries
2018 was the year we trialed our services with Japanese, multinational F500, and startup companies. It proved that there was a demand for this kind of service, and that we were uniquely positioned to be a leading player in the market. 2019 is the year where we expand our services, client portfolio, and develop the platform for scalability. It is my hope that 2020 will kick off global expansion. But, beyond business success, there is a greater fundamental vision. Through my travels, I have observed that there are a few universal activities in the world that have the ability to connect people beyond linguistic and cultural barriers. These include dance, soccer, music, farming, alcohol, and food. I believe community/connection fitness is the next to join this rank, and we hope for CoFit (and SOGO) to be a big part of that equation.
What made you set up your own company?
In 2016-2017, I determined that the fitness and corporate wellness boom was early stage, undeniable, and had many years of growth potential. Additionally, I felt it was an area less likely to be impacted by automation and AI, unlike many functions within digital marketing. So, on December 31st, 2017, I left my 9-5 digital marketing office job in order to transition into the corporate wellness industry.
Based on my knowledge of the market, I realised that traditional institutional fitness providers (gyms, both chain and boutique, and the network of established instructors) were well positioned to extend existing services to corporate clients. That is, for example, for a domestic yoga studio to offer Japanese yoga classes to corporations. However, the greatest demand for wellness services, I presumed, would initially come from multinationals that seek bilingual services, and, given the opportunity, would prefer fitness services that offer a value-add beyond just traditional fitness. That is to say, fitness with a component of mindfulness, education, or holistic wellness.
I was driven by a combination by an overwhelming sense of purpose, the clear market opportunity, and the belief that I was well positioned to succeed (given my mix of skills, passion for the craft, and network of friends, supporters, and partners). So, I reached out to Menya, a fellow fitness innovator, whom I already worked closely with on SOGO and I knew shared the same vision of disrupting the fitness industry, and we created CoFit. We had a powerful ‘why’ and a partnership based on shared values, trust and respect. The rest, is history!
Fitness innovator, life coach, digital marketer… that’s a lot of roles and skills, which are your favourites?
I find immense enjoyment in both life coaching and fitness. With my fitness initiatives (CoFit & SOGO) I am able to help a lot of people, a little. But, with my life coaching (Principle Fitness), I am able to help a few people a lot. I think there is a need for both approaches and am truly grateful that I can pursue both.
So, does health really lead to wealth?
In my experience and observations, this question can be answered with a more straightforward ‘Yes’. Speaking from personal experience, when I am physically and mentally healthy, I am far more productive, empathetic, confident, disciplined, focused, and motivated – all traits necessary to succeed in society either as a student, employee or entrepreneur. If we presume that wealth is a result of productivity, and health and productivity have a positive correlation, then we can reasonably assume that, to strive for health, in consideration of time constraints and opportunity costs, will lead to wealth.
Which project – business or pleasure – are you most proud of completing and why?
My first project was a website called Hack My Study from 2010, which provided advice on study hacks and productivity techniques for students. A great source of inspiration for this project was Tim Ferris and ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’. It has since received over 2.5 millions views, earned $12,000 in Google AdSense Revenue and Amazon & 3rd party affiliate commissions, and even beat Tim Ferris’s competing articles on many keywords. It was not my biggest success, but it was the one that started it all. That I was able to provide effective advice to students across the world for free and learn many valuable skills in the process, it cemented the idea in me that there are many ways to create win-win-win (creator-consumer-society) situations through creation and entrepreneurship.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
If you want a good laugh, check out the fitness music video I recently co-produced called Radio Taiso X. We took the original Radio Taiso #1 routine, remixed it into an EDM track, created a hardcore version of the exercises, and then filmed around six locations in Tokyo.
If your company is interested in providing fitness team building activities for your employees as a way to promote interdepartmental socialisation, and create a healthier, happier, and more optimistic working environment, please contact leo[at]cofitmovement.com. Or If you or your business is interested in workshops on goal setting, productivity, community building, and happiness, or you’re interested in 1-on-1 coaching, please contact leo[at]principlefitness.org. Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Leo’s community building projects, you can read more on his homepage leofuchigami.com.
*Please note that any opinions expressed in this interview are that of Leo’s and do not reflect that of his employers. Where cited, his opinions do, however, reflect that of the organisations he has built or been a significant contributor to.