Thursday, November 12, 2009

How Japan Defines "Fat"

by David Nakamura

I was teaching English at a high school in Hiroshima, Japan, in 2001, when a group of boys approached to introduce me to a classmate.

"His name is Jumbo-san--Mr. Jumbo!" the boys said, laughing.

"Why do you call him that?" I asked. "Because he's big-sized," one boy replied, curling his arms out from his waist and wobbling around in an imitation.

A smiling boy stepped forward. He was about 5 feet 8, maybe 175 pounds. Hardly jumbo. I was a couple inches taller and more than 10 pounds heavier than he was. "You're not that big," I told Mr. Jumbo. "In America, you wouldn't even make the football team."

In Japan, being fat remains noteworthy, something that makes you stand out in a shameful way in a conformist society. Even now, despite government statistics and anecdotal evidence that Japanese people are getting heavier, I can go days without seeing a single fat person in Tokyo.

Last year, lawmakers established a national limit on waistlines for people 40 and older: 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women. The program, which aims to cut down on metabolic syndrome, a leading indicator for heart disease and diabetes, has been controversial and critics say it misses the mark scientifically.

Regardless of how one feels about legislating waistlines, living in Japan for an American is a wakeup call when it comes to body image and eating discipline. In the same way that living in Hiroshima after 9/11 provided me a different perspective about American military power, so did it teach me a valuable lesson in the way the Japanese saw America's obesity epidemic.

As with most things in Japan, the lessons were delivered indirectly, with the exception of the occasional student poking my stomach and saying, "American size!" Compared to their American counterparts, the Japanese snack less often between meals, walk more when commuting to work and, most important, eat meals of far smaller proportions. (They also smoke more, which is an appetite suppressant and remains a health concern far more worrisome here than creeping weight gain.)

Living in Hiroshima, I lost 15 pounds in three months. I wasn't even trying to lose weight. I had arrived in Hiroshima, at 31 years old, at my heaviest--195 pounds--but I felt I had been eating non-stop in Japan. The portion size was just so much smaller than I was used to in the United States.

My habits improved, too. I biked around town, played soccer with the students, and walked up and down four flights both at school and my apartment complex. I still remember putting on my belt one day and finding I had to hook it three holes smaller than before.

A lot has been written recently about studies suggesting that your peer group strongly influences your weight. If your friends are fat, then you likely will be, too. The opposite also seems true; in Japan, peer pressure is enormous and staying thin is taken as a given.

I am back in Japan, living in Tokyo for a year, and one of my Japanese co-worker recently stopped joining the other men for lunch at restaurants; instead, he began bringing a small bento box. When I asked why, he said his wife believed he was getting fat and required him to eat her pre-approved portions.

Not surprisingly, there are unintended consequences. Eating disorders are prevalent, especially among young women. When Ralph Lauren was criticized by the U.S. media after digitally altering an image of already-slender supermodel Filippa Hamilton to make her appear even skinnier, I was not surprised that a company executive said the advertisement had only appeared in Japan.

When I returned to Washington in 2002 after my year in Hiroshima, I sold my car and biked around town, ran on the treadmill and continued to play soccer. But still, my weight slowly increased over the years. Back in Japan for the past six months, I have again lost about 7 or 8 pounds. When I see overweight Westerners on the streets or in restaurants here, I become embarrassed and angry; so many seem to have given up on staying fit.

It is hard work--believe me, I know. At 39, I would be required next year to have my stomach measured under Japan's waistline law. And, though I recently ran a 10-kilometer race in 47 minutes, I would fail the exam: At 5-feet-10 and about 180 pounds, I wear a 35-inch pant--1 1/2 inches bigger than the government-mandated waistline limit for men.

Call me Mr. Jumbo.




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