Why Japan Is Skinny, And It’s Not To Do With Raw Fish and Seaweed
The eating habits of the Japanese as observed by an English expat in Japan.
It’s no secret that Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Western stereotypes would have us believe that this is due to a scant diet of raw fish and seaweed. But having lived in Japan for nearly two years, I’ve noticed that there is a lot going on here besides diet. Sure, fish and other sea products are ubiquitous. But you know what else features heavily?
DONUTS. CAKES. TEMPURA BATTER. FRIED CHICKEN. FULL-FAT DAIRY. STEAK. PASTRIES. CHICKEN SKIN ON A STICK (yes that’s a thing).
Also, let’s just be real for a second, not everyone’s thin here. When I’m not writing, I work in Japanese public schools and I’ve seen my fair share of kids who look like they enjoy a few too many rice balls at lunch.
Recently, a Japanese co-worker sent me a photo of her friend’s wedding ‘cake’. It was a tower of cascading strips of fatty beef. ‘She really loves meat! Haha!’ read the caption.
So with this in mind, how the hell are the Japanese thin? Well, here are a few of my observations.
Mindful eating is naturally practised.
(Rather than it being a cool new diet that a millennial [me] read about in Marie Claire, then pitched to her friends as something to try out ahead of bikini season.)
Food is savoured in Japan more than it is scoffed.
Chopsticks help with this — you can’t shove masses of food into your face with two thin sticks (though I’ve tried). My Japanese co-workers will often put down their chopsticks between mouthfuls and look wistfully out of the window.
Meanwhile, I’m in the corner inhaling my lunch like a bear that hasn’t fed for weeks, while simultaneously texting and reading ‘Top 10 Best Dogs’ on Buzzfeed.
Drunk snackery isn’t mandatory, like it is in the UK.
A testament to this is the fact that the only McDonalds in my local city’s centre closes at 11pm. (WHAT IS THAT? WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?)
Sure, there are late-night restaurants. But I don’t want a sit-down, civilized meal after I’ve fallen out of a bar. I want to hurriedly consume an array of greasy goods, under the unforgiving glare of a shitty fast-food eatery’s florescent lights. And then I want to get the hell out of there.
So, we’re forced to stalk the aisles of the local convenience stores like ravenous, bloodshot-eyed predators. And by ‘we’, I mean me and other Western pieces of trash.
There is never another Japanese person in sight, except for the guy who’s buying a tea and sitting in the corner quietly reading manga at 3 am.
The only way I could ever foresee leaving a bar and going straight home to bed, minus food, would be if there was a natural disaster. Even in the absence of snack outlets, I would stumble home and cook a spaghetti carbonara from scratch. (That actually has happened).
Vegetables are cool in Japan.
Imagine a world where vegetables were sexier than Megan Fox. Welcome to Japan.
Vegetables spilling out of pastoral wicker baskets look at you alluringly from glossy posters in the subway. They’ll have titles like ‘Kyoto Vegetables!’ as if it’s a celebrated tourist attraction you’ve waited all your life to see.
Different prefectures produce different crops and they advertise their region’s vegetables with supreme pride. But this isn’t just a weird and misguided travel campaign dreamt up by the same people who copywrote 2020’s ‘Go To Travel’, it’s part of the Japanese psyche: vegetables are great! Eating good quality, locally sourced vegetables is just as exciting as eating a double chocolate fudge brownie.
When I was considering visiting Hokkaido, a co-worker informed me that I’d ‘be able to try Hokkaido vegetables!’ I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t really give a shit about Hokkaido’s vegetables.
Weirdly, despite all this, veganism hasn’t taken off in Japan and vegetarianism is rare. Just yesterday I graded a Japanese student’s paper in which he debated which was better, meat or fish. He concluded that meat was better because ‘no-one hates meat’.
School lunches actually ARE delicious and nutritious.
As an elementary school kid, I was passed plates of reconstituted chicken ‘drumsticks’ and cold baked beans (which had formed a skin where they had congealed in their serving tray), by two eighty-something — I’m not gonna sugar-coat it — hags.
The lunch hall at middle school was less Oliver Twist, but was still devoid of anything healthy. We were met with a sea of beige, fried items resting and glistening in trays.
In Japan — unlike in the UK — school lunches aren’t abominable or something to be feared. They are delicious and are excitedly anticipated by students and staff alike.
They are also balanced meals that have been carefully planned out by a nutritionist.
That’s right, Japanese schools have an actual f**king nutritionist.
They take this stuff seriously. No really, they also wear hazmat suits to prepare lunch. My lunch hags had long brown nails, didn’t wear gloves and scooped up excess dribbles with their bony fingers, before licking them clean and continuing.
And unlike the fussy little pricks in UK schools — myself included (but come on, baked beans WITH A SKIN?!) — students in Japan clear their plates without complaint.
Fat fear is widespread.
Just like media in the West, the Japanese media propagates that thin = good. But unlike Western society, openly referencing someone’s weight in everyday conversation is normal. In Japan if you want to describe someone as fat, you’re not being bitchy, you’re being real.
Recently, when I mentioned a mutual acquaintance to a Japanese co-worker, ‘Oh you mean the fat girl?’ was her unflinching response.
But this directness shouldn’t be confused with acceptance. Being fat is still bad.
Several Western friends have been told, categorically, by their Japanese doctors (and one by her neighbour) that they’re fat and should lose weight. These are women whose BMIs are considered normal in their own countries.
No-one wants to run the risk of being called ‘fat’ in Japan, so everyone strives not to be.
The Japanese are really good at self-restraint.
This probably has something to do with the above, and less to do with some innate superpower.
The Japanese are pretty careful — consciously or unconsciously — about what they put into their bodies. But not unhealthily so… generally speaking. (Eating disorders do exist in Japan but they aren’t as prevalent as in the West.)
For example, my Japanese girlfriends will order fried chicken, sure. But they’ll order two pieces, not SIX (like me). Afterwards, they’ll profess how full they are (lies), as I’m dribbling over the dessert menu.
I have never once seen a Japanese friend eat past the point of fullness. Back home, this was a favourite pastime for me and my pals.
I don’t believe for a second that a single one of my Japanese girlfriends has ever watched a film, with the top button of her jeans undone, feeling sick but slowly lifting another slice of pizza to her mouth anyway. Sighing with anticipated regret.
Truthfully, I haven’t seen out-of-control eating here like I have in the West.
I know what you’re thinking: what about the meaty bride from earlier? Well, I can guarantee she had no more than two slices of beef that day.
My takeaway from this is the following: Japan certainly needs to work on its fat-shaming culture, as well as its questionable views on foreign women’s bodies. However, there are many aspects of Japanese food culture that we could all learn from.
On the whole, relationships with food in Japan don’t appear to be as toxic and fraught as they are in Western societies.
I have often felt inspired by the eating habits of Japanese friends which have taught me to appreciate food more, stop overindulging and stop cooking carbonaras, drunk, at 3am.