Colorful balloons, a DJ spinning bops and the buzz of anticipation at Yokohama’s PRagmatic Academy on a public holiday in November: it looked like the setting for a lively party. Yet, despite appearances, it was the scene of Japan’s second Strongirls Strength Festival, a women’s powerlifting competition (known as a meet), where 39 women of all ages, sizes and abilities tested their strength in three lifts; squats, bench presses and deadlifts.

This welcoming and joyful atmosphere has been deliberately cultivated by elite powerlifters, Esther Bae and Kanan Kasai, who wanted to make a notoriously intimidating sport one that felt welcoming and inclusive for Asian women.

The Start of Strongirls

The Strongirls community began in 2020 when Bae, a national champion powerlifter, moved back from the U.S. to South Korea and was frustrated by the comparative lack of women lifting.

“Asia is years behind Western countries when it comes to fitness trends,” she says. “We are just catching up.”

Her solution was an Instagram call-out to find other women to lift with. “I was the only girl at my powerlifting gym, and I was lonely. So, I started hosting this Strongirls Barbell Club. Nobody else was doing it. Twenty-five girls showed up and I thought ‘Wow, these girls really want this.’”

The community soon caught the attention of Kasai, host of the Barbell Radio podcast and a national champion powerlifter in two weight classes.

“Esther was doing really well bringing up powerlifting as a sport in the Asian community, so I messaged her,” says Kasai. “We have the same background and goals, both grew up overseas, came back to Asia and love competing, expanding the sport and inspiring other Asian women to lift. We got off the call and I asked her, ‘can I start Strongirls Japan?’”

Since then, the pair have become a force in the powerlifting world and have ambitions to expand to locations such as Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Taiwan and New Zealand. Their drive stems from a desire to push back against the Asian beauty standards they have both struggled with.

“I think a lot of Asian women are sick and tired of just working out for aesthetics,” says Bae. “There are ridiculous beauty standards in Korea and Japan. Everybody needs to look perfect. You need to be extra small and you need to be a certain weight. They’re homogenous countries, so people love following trends and feel out of place when they’re doing something different. But fitness shouldn’t just be about aesthetics, it’s so much more. Powerlifting frees you from going to the gym to get smaller or look better. It’s about seeing the weights on your bar go up. You get bigger, stronger and feel better. Only the girls who have experienced it will know the true appeal.”

strongirls strength festival

Strongirls Strength Festival 2023

The appeal is apparent at the latest meet. Competitors range from national-level lifters setting personal records to first-time competitors benching an empty bar. Regardless of the numbers on the bar, each competitor is applauded as they step onto the platform. The audience shouts their support if they struggle through the lift. Whether they make the lift or not, there are whoops of support, high-fives and hugs. Unlike official meets, the referees are a little more lenient and there are no weight classes.

“I don’t want it to be about that. I want it to be about people making their own progress, having fun and making friends,” says Kasai.

There’s no prerequisite for how strong you need to be to take part. Both Bae and Kasai profess to never having been sporty until they found powerlifting.

“It’s why I like to emphasize that strength really is for everyone,” says Bae. “When I was growing up, I was always left on the bench. Always last in the mile run. I was that girl. I turned out to be a powerlifting athlete. Anyone can do it.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Hiromi Stone who, at 63, says she is the oldest woman competing at the event (though there were several other ‘master’ lifters).

“Powerlifting is something you can do forever,” she says. “I would love to get more older people involved because you can do it without really moving. It’s very controlled and there’s no opponent, so it’s just you and the bar. There are a lot of studies that show how good these three lifts are as you age. Ultimately, you have to look after your muscles and bones.”

Stone is adamant that you can continue to get stronger and build muscle as you age. “I hit 40 kilograms on the bench press today, which I’ve been chasing for almost three years. I also did 112.5 kilograms in the deadlift, which matches my personal record,” she says.

Better than Yesterday

These personal achievements are at the heart of the Strongirls’ ethos, “Better than yesterday”, which is emblazoned on the back of the event T-shirts.

“It’s not about how much you lift but that you’re stepping up a little bit more each day,” says Kasai. “I think that matters more than anything. It’s true for life. Try to be a little bit better than yesterday, whether it’s learning something new, getting stronger. Everything.”

Shaye, a Shiga-based competitor from the States agrees. “This sport teaches you that it’s OK to improve little by little. You can start where you are and just move up. Pretty soon you’ll be able to do more than you think you can.”

Getting started is simple, says Kasai. “Coming to events like this and connecting with people on social media makes you feel like you’re not doing it alone. You’re seeing other women lifting and going through the same things as you. Powerlifting is a sport where other people really support you and root for you. It’s about bringing each other up. And that gives me a joy that nothing else can,” she beams.