Female bodybuilders pose during the Japan bodybuilding championships in Tokyo

Tokyo (AFP) - Glistening with sweat, Satoko Yamanouchi’s biceps ripple and the veins in her neck throb as if about to pop as she strikes a fearsome pose at the Japan bodybuilding championships.

An hour later, the pint-sized Nagoya housewife is close to tears after narrowly failing to retain her title from a field of 34 bronzed and impressively buff ladies, most of them in their fifties.

“I was pathetic!” the 56-year-old Yamanouchi told AFP backstage at the close of the event earlier this week, sporting a skimpy gold bikini.

The number of bodybuilders registered with Japan's national federation has almost doubled over the past six years to around 3,000

“A silver medal means nothing to me,” sniffed the sinewy ex-champ, who stands just 1.58 metres (5 feet, 2in) tall and weighs 50 kilograms (110 pounds). “It just means you’re the best loser.”

A self-confessed gym rat, Yamanouchi is the poster girl for Japan’s growing number of female bodybuilders, helping break down gender stereotypes in a country obsessed with the “kawaii” (cute) fluffiness of its ubiquitous pop culture.

“I want to help change perceptions so that more people can appreciate the beauty of a muscular woman,” said the five-time national champion after a punishing two-hour workout a week before the competition.

“When I tell people I’m a bodybuilder, it freaks them out,” added Yamanouchi, who became hooked on the sport in her late forties after looking for a way to keep fit.

“My husband didn’t like it when I started either, his wife wearing a bikini in public, but he came around.”

- ‘Regular housewife’ -

Japan's female bodybuilders stand out in a country obsessed with the "kawaii" (cute) fluffiness of its ubiquitous pop culture

The number of bodybuilders registered with Japan’s national federation has almost doubled over the past six years to around 3,000, with women making up 10 percent as part of a nationwide fitness boom, officials said.

In ageing Japan, female bodybuilding is dominated by women in their forties and fifties, as many usually only start after their children have grown up.

Yamanouchi, who takes around 10 different supplements a day to boost muscle growth and aid recovery, insists she knows where to draw the line, despite her bulging physique.

Two-time Japan body-building champion Yuri Yasui caught the workout bug after initially wanting to lose weight

“I don’t want to look like the Hulk,” she said, taking a gulp of protein shake.

“I want to look beautiful and keep my femininity. I just don’t feel like a regular housewife,” added Yamanouchi. “I’m always striving to create the perfect body.”

Women’s bodybuilding is a serious business.

The oldest competitor at the Japan championships, 64-year-old Mariko Takamatsu, stormed off after failing to make the top 12.

Japanese bodybuilder Miyuki Sato poses as she warms up backstage during the Japan bodybuilding championships in Tokyo

The eventual winner, Megumi Sawada, struck a series of eye-popping poses to the theme tune of Godzilla, stunning Yamanouchi to take the title.

“It’s unbelievable I’ve won,” gasped the 56-year-old gym instructor, who used to compete in secret to avoid upsetting her mother.

“I want to create the kind of body that stops people in the street,” laughed Sawada, sporting a bob hairstyle and silver nail polish.

“I don’t care what people think – you can express feminine beauty with this kind of body.”

- Horsemeat for breakfast -

Other bodybuilding sub-genres have sprung up in Japan, including “bikini fitness” – a category that has turned Yuri Yasui into a magazine cover girl.

In ageing Japan, female bodybuilding is dominated by women in their forties and fifties

A two-time Japan champion, the statuesque 33-year-old is another who caught the workout bug after initially wanting to lose weight.

“When I started training seriously, my parents were dead against it – even my friends were,” said Yasui, a bank employee from Nagoya, a city southwest of Tokyo, who won her first national title less than a year after taking up the sport.

“They didn’t want me up there in front of strangers in a bikini flashing my bottom.”

“At long last women are starting to work out regularly, but Japanese men still don’t really accept muscle-bound women,” added Yasui after lifting weights at a Tokyo gym.

“It’s important to change attitudes. The way to a feminine body – getting that tiny waist and a round bum – is by building muscle.”

Yasui eats horsemeat for breakfast and lunch to help keep her body fat low and models her striking figure on an American feminist icon.

“Ever since I was at college, I adored Wonder Woman,” said the 1.73 metre tall Yasui, who even wears a star-spangled bikini on the cover of her official video.

“I wanted that hour-glass body with the tight waist, big breasts and buttocks. You can get it – you just have to work at it.”