fat in japan

A few thoughts on what it feels like to be fat in Japan.

Women’s magazines are always ready to sell us a newly found miracle diet. In the past years, they’ve set their eyes on Japan and how the traditional Japanese diet would be the perfect weight loss method in the West. Countless articles mentioned how konjac (konnyaku) and tofu were magical to drop a few pounds. But let’s not rush on the miso soup and the Japanese-rice diet just yet.

I felt I needed to write a few thoughts on what it feels like to be fat in Japan after reading an excellent piece written by the French blog author Sonia. She wrote quite a long piece about struggling with her eating disorders in Japan and made a buzz on the Huffington Post.

Struggling myself with body image and food, an issue which worsen as I moved to Japan, I felt compelled to write about the topic as well. The timing is perfect as the Japanese obesity law (metabo-law« ) of 2008 has now been into place and is under the scrutiny of media, both national and foreign.

First of all.

I start with the assumption that you’re an informed reader. I believe obesity to be a complex issue, too often limited to a lack of willpower and ill nutrition. Eating disorders are serious medical condition and obesity isn’t limited to food. If you’re curious to learn more, I invite you to explore G.R.O.S (French only), a think tank about obesity in France.

The Japanese diet: fish, tofu and rice.

But also soy sauce, fried food and more rice!

Sure, we can’t deny Japanese people tend to be super thin – or even skinny, depending on how you define « thin ». No doubt then, that shopping for clothes in Japan can be quite a shock for foreigners. To hell if you can find large size or fitting unique size! Magazines as well as movies show young women and men so tall and slim that 3 of them can easily fit in my thigh.

I’m not a scientist, but I’d bet the traditional diet is one factor that explains Japanese’s body size. Let’s not forget Japan was quite poor and the population’s diet basically relied on marine products, vegetables & roots, rice (smaller amount than today!) and tofu. Genetics probably have a say in the story as well. After all, human body isn’t exactly the same in the world and unless you’re planning to cut your bones, a French or an American woman can hardly look like a Japanese one.

Lowest obesity rate, but the game is on.

The country can still pride itself on having one of the lowest obesity rate in the world (3.5%). However, Japan has entered the race to putting on extra weight. This phenomenon is explained by the influence of the Western diet (in particular from the US). A point in favour of traditional diet being a key to keep a low weight in Japan, surely.

Let’s take a quick look back at those magazines selling us the Japanese diet. My take is that they’ve interviewed a handful of trendy wealthy Japanese women, most likely living in Tokyo or Kyoto, hence not exactly the daily picture I can see in Japan.

Junk food, industrial meals, portion size, are slowly influencing Japanese to eat more fat, sugar and salt, to snack more frequently as well as to cook less. And I can’t blame them. They are overworked, underpaid, and supermarket packed junk food is cheaper than ever, appealing and soothing as well. Obesity is spreading rapidly in Japan, especially among young people and surprisingly, in the countryside.

The Japanese government is obsessed with your waistline.

In 2008, the Japanese government passed a striking but controversial law, nicknamed the metabo law, from « Metabolism », which stands for « Standard Concerning Implementation Special Health Examinations and Special Public Health Guidance ». This document has set a waistline control during the annual medical check-up. Above 85 cm for men and 90 cm for women, workers’s health will be considered at risk. Those workers will be under the obligation to consult health professionals and to take a follow-up by email, phone or post mail, providing diet advice as well as emotional support. The underlying goal is to reduce the obesity rate by 10% for 2012 and 20% for 2015. This concerns approximately 50 millions of Japanese.

Is it illegal to be overweight in Japan? – source: http://wafflesatnoon.com

The waistline control has raised concerns and was perceived as humiliating for employees. The ministry of health conceded the right to keep the clothes on during the measurement (1.5 cm is taken off from the result).

A hostile work environment.

If the Metabo Law doesn’t involve a specific individual punishment for the workers, employers and firms can receive fine if they have too many workers whose waistlines (and overall check-up results) go over the limit. What the heck?!

You might think « is this such a bad idea? ». Well, don’t forget that it isn’t so much as to keep an eye on workers’ health as to reduce health insurance related cost.

From a legal standpoint, the law is putting employees at risk. Can being overweight be a cause for termination or discrimination in hiring?

Legal matters aside, such type of prevention, based on numbers rather than the individual as a whole, have the potential to create eating disorders and to lead to fast diets which are known not only to be inefficient, but also to cause health issues.

Worse, some companies are willing to create mandatory weight loss programs for their employees.

Going back to Sonia’s story, I was also appalled by how her coworkers (especially male) felt they could criticize  her body openly.

My first week of work went well (…). They organized a welcome party (…). Since the party celebrates my arrival in the company, I’m placed in the middle of the table, surrounded by all my new colleagues and bosses. (…) During the festivities, it all went very wrong.

One (male) colleague nearby (…) drunkenly shouted at me, with loud enough voice for everybody in the restaurant to hear: « Hey Sonia! Why are you shaped like that? Look at yourself! You’ve got a nice face, you could be cute, but what is that body? Why are you fat? Your face is slim, but from the neck to bottom, you’re so fat it ruins everything. Everything below the chin is to throw away! It’s such a shame, you should go on a diet! ».

Everyone looked embarrassed, but we’re in Japan. They just smiled and nobody responded or told him to shut up. It looked as if it was perfectly normal for me to endure such attack. He didn’t stop and humiliated me in front of everyone (…). « Why won’t you admit it? Why don’t you make an effort to lose weight? It isn’t hard to stop eating and to exercise! You are not living far, why do you come by train? You have to come by bicycle, that way you’ll lose weight and you will not be as big as that! Because now, a beautiful face on top of that, it’s disgusting (kimochi warui in Japanese).« 

It was too much for me to endure. I burst into tears in front of everyone shacking uncontrollably (…) A female colleague tried to calm me down. « Don’t cry! I , too, have been often told that I should lose weight and I eat too much, but I never cried! »


If I feel fat, am I fat?

Being obsessed with one’s weight is quite recent in Japan, but the pandora box is opened. Statistics are striking. Since 2000S, young Japanese women are increasingly dieting, buying weight loss drugs, laxatives and meal replacement. More than 50% of high school girls dislike their body, believing they are fat although only 2,7% of girls aged 16 to 18 are seriously overweight. Only 23% of girls within this age range like their body.

While I was trying some clothes on at an H&M in Shibuya, I over heard a conversation between two girls in the close by changing room.

– « Hm, isn’t this too small? Shouldn’t you try a bigger size?

– Yeah, it’s kind of small, but I’m on a diet, so that’s fine.

– Oh really? Great! Which diet?

– Diet & @ $ (ç. I’m already down 5 kg!

– Waaaah! Keep up the good work!

– Thanks! I’d like to lose ten, especially for my health. »

The conversation went on for about ten minutes along with giggles and comments about their clothing. As I was leaving the changing room, I could take a quick peek at them. Believe me not, they were already thin as paper!

What about you? What is it like to be (or feel!) fat in Japan?

Well, the issue is that, even if you’re fine with however you look (overweight or not!) coming to Japan can shake your confidence. Like Sonia, coming to Japan took away my well-being and my good perception of my body. I’d be curious to hear from other expatriates and tourists as well.

One aspect of the issue comes from the ignorance of Japanese people on body shape back home. It’s probably weird to say so, but we’re not build like them, nor like American, or Brazilian… And that’s kind of obvious that we’re not as thin as they can be.

But for Japanese people, being bigger equals being fat, and being fat is de facto unhealthy (sic!). And since in Japan, health matters rely on your willpower, many Japanese believe a fat person can only blame their habits (too much food, lack of exercise and so on). Solving your weight problem should have an easy answer and therefore, some of them feel they are entitled to tell you so.

Again, Sonia experienced some Japanese cruelty that I’m lucky not to have experienced (yet?). Japanese people can have a sharp tongue on the weight issue.

« Japanese people can be very polite, especially between relatives, however, they can quite frankly tell remarks attacking the body.At school, at work, or with friends, I received regularly disparaging thoughts by Japanese men such as « you eat chocolate? You’d better rather go on a diet, watch out for your belly. », « look at your belly and buttocks, you should exercise more », and so on. Boom, here goes my self-esteem (…). Jokes about women’s weight aren’t uncommon in Japan. »


Nobody should feel they have a say on how you look and how fat you are. But in Japan, where the obesity and overweight tendencies are quite recent, there’s a long way to go.

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