(originally sent to Fukuzawa Tue, 16 Apr 1996)

Every two or three years when I make my pilgrimage back to the US, I'm astounded by the number of really fat people I see. I don't mean mere potbellies or spare tyres--I mean obese people, who find difficulty walking around or going through narrow doors. And then I wonder why I don't see this sort of thing in Japan.

My theory follows:



(Escape clause: I am certainly not a trained nutritionalist--just a thinker whose hobby is amassing information and drawing conclusions. I welcome people in the know out there to point out factual errors or farcical comments)



One oft-overlooked measure of a society's level of development is something as basic as daily calorie intake--the "richer" the society becomes, the more the average person eats. In developing societies, say, India, plumpness in women has been seen (in movie posters, etc) as an attractive feature--a symbol of wealth and luxurious life for the select few who can afford it. However, as disposable incomes swell to allow common access to delectable entrees and even snacks (I bet there is a positive correlation between development and junk food), advertisements for weight-loss associations proliferate in that country's mass media. The Economist's obituary of slimming pioneer Esther Manz (3/16/96,p.100) notes that the never-ending battle against obesity is the "basis of a rich industry", and Americans cough up an estimated $30 billion annually just to sweat or starve.

Rich is as rich does. America has been developed for so long that even the oldest surviving generation has a dim memory of life without basic amenities: cars, phones, sewerage, and fast-food steaks. Then we look at Japan, which is easier to trace. It has switched from shattered and starving third-world to squeaky-clean and tsukai-sute first-world in not much more than a generation. As postwar Japan rebuilt and developed far past its liberal Taisho-Era heyday into its snug conspicuous consumption phase, popular taste in bodily form has visibly shifted--from longer legs to thinner legs, from bigger busts to slimmer hips and waists. With this popular pressure to slim in Japan (and the propensity, particularly in womens' society, to comment freely on changes in weight here), calorie counts more often appear on menus, books are available to compare the nutritional value of a Lotteria hamburger with a Big Mac, and the need for exercise switches from simple "kibun tenkan" to being a way to sweat off the sugar in the coffee. Tennis clubs (where people once went to find dates) have lost buisness to all-around sports clubs (where people are too busy riding their exercise bicycles to socialize). Even slimming shortcuts have arisen for the rich and popular--miracle cures, from the "apple diet" to the "sweat suits", have gone to the same extremes as in the states, even killing popular culture icons such as singer Misora Hibari, and turning Miyazawa Rie (who was once rumored to be fattening up like her mother) into another Karen Carpenter. In this sense, newly-rich Japan seems to be following in America's footsteps, where lower-fat diet-cum-exercise culture has been around for well over a generation.

Many people blame the change in Japan's diet. Japanese food has long been leaning towards the fried (tenpura has been around as long as the Portuguese), fattier (wagyuu is marbled with fat and not cut away), and meatier (it's just as easy to OD on meat at any "jingisu kan" or "shabu-shabu" restaurant here as it is at an American barbeque). However, despite this, I assert that Japan will not fatten up to the levels of the Americans. This is for two big reasons--statistical and sociological. Each in turn:



Americans are fatter than Japanese because Americans simply consume more calories on a daily basis. Evidence: according to The Economist Pocket World in Figures 1996, p. 73, the country which consumes the most "calories per person, per day" is (of all places) Greece, with 4152. In fourth place (behind Denmark and Germany) is the US, with 3495 calories. Now, since according to the NYTimes Magazine (3/10/96 entitled, "How We Eat: An America Divided", p.38), few people require more than 2000 calories a day (echoed in the calibrations of the standard nutritional surveys on all US food containers). Even a reasonably-active person probably wouldn't need more than 2500. Yet Americans scarf down an additional 1000 calories over daily requirements, which has to go somewhere. Assuming an ideal meal is about 700 calories (i.e. three meals a day totalling 2000 calories), that means Americans consume the equivalent of more than four meals a day!

And how about Japan? According to the Pocket Figures, Japan lies 53rd, with 2647 calories a day (just seven calories ahead of China, but behind Malaysia. FYI, the entire country calorie chart can be found at the bottom of this posting.) That means Japanese are much closer to a "daily caloric equilibrium", being a full meal behind the Americans. Every day.

That's a pretty heavy fact, and it makes the difference between a potbelly and a lardass. According to the NYTMag, same page, 74 percent of Americans are "overweight". I don't have similar figures for Japan but I doubt it's anywhere near that high. So when we switch societies, going from one which is near calorie parity to one which is long-term eating far too much, it makes you notice who's walking or waddling to the tabehoudai table.

I won't get into the can of worms of "quality of eating" (where debates on types-of-fats consumption sound like the inconclusive morass of a philosophy class), and I do acknowledge that Japan is moving towards higher calories.

But I still maintain that Japan will not even come close to the Americans regardless. One reason is that Japan is the highest consumer of seafood (which has less fat and more nutrition) in the world, according to the National Geographic. I dont' see that changing much, unless the ocean is fished out (a possibility), man-made hatcheries cannot meet demand, or there is a "Mad-Sushi" Disease. . My point is that just in terms of pure logistics, Japan is eating less and getting more from their diet.

Now let's take a look at comparative attitudes towards food. Crucially because of these, I think Japan will stay slimmer.



Only America can make so many things that are so bad for you taste so good. Walk into an American supermaraket/mall and open your eyes. What do you see? A half row, up and down, of Brach's candy. A whole row, up and down, of breakfast cereals (with the sugary ones, like Lucky Charms, on the bottom row so the kids can reach it). A counter selling Slurpees, a pizza parlor (with cheap party pizzas the size of a Picasso canvas that was made to be overeaten) that doesn't sell milk but has no end of Coke (Diet Coke, if you're worried about your waist). Go down to the condiments row and help yourself to the hefty "party size" bags in nacho or ranch flavor (but don't forget the dip, conveniently placed at eye-level). And on your way out, see the fine selection of candy bars at the checkout counter--for fuel when you don't have time for a full meal. Snickers really satisfies.

Let's look at a full meal in white-bread America: Frosted Flakes ("part of this complete nutritious breakfast"--but who listens?) for starters. For lunch, a jumbo sub sandwich (don't forget the ketchup and mayo!) with matching nonjuice carbonated beverage. Dinnertime: something Italian perhaps, with super sweet tomato sauce, with salad (but don't forget the "Creamy Italian" dressing!), followed by "decadently delicious" deluxe rocky road ice cream or double-layered chocolate-covered cheese cake for dessert (always far, far sweeter than the variant in Japan). Maybe a Mrs. Fields' Chocolate Chip cookie in between meals if you're feeling peckish. So much money, so many snacks, so little time between meals...

I'm laying it on a bit thick, I admit, and not everybody eats likes this. My point is that it's not difficult to eat badly in America--unless one make an informed, concerted effort to weed out the amount of sweet in one's diet before it becomes an eating habit. It's easier to weed in Japan, for its food does not overrely on the sweet sensation--sour, bitter, etc flavors are also considered palatable. Because of its near-addiction to the sugary taste, America is an obstacle course for the obese.

But this may be apocryphal. Sure, kids in Japan get Sailor Moon sweets shoved in their mouths to shut them up at a funeral, and the chocolate/mochi/cookie/ice cream/ebi snacks economy is booming just as well here. So let's assume away this "lack of temptation in Japan" theme and say that both societies have the same option to snack on items of comparably questionable nutrition. Then are the Japanese going to catch up to the Americans in terms of calories?

No, I assert, because of two phenomena I see in the US and not in Japan: "pigging out" (called "grazing" in the slimming world jargon), and the deadly combination of "Value Equals the Amount on Your Plate" with "The Ethiopia Guilt Complex".


It's dinner time in America and you've just come home after a hard day of work and are starving. So what do you do? Open the fridge and what do you find? Well, you could go through the trouble to whip up something from scratch, but A Current Affair and then Simpsons are on soon so let's slap something together. Ah, some leftover beef stew for the microwave! There's not much left, so you procure some bread for balance--maybe a little margarine and cheese on top--and pop it in the toaster oven. But what to have as a side dish? Veggies are frozen and thus too much trouble to defrost. Lo!, there's a 2-lb bag of Doritos on the table. You restrict yourself to two handfuls (with a little salsa) but they make you thirsty. So you wash it down with some cola. But you gotta remove the cola's sweet taste from your mouth so you find some potato chips. You're halfway through Simpsons and the bag of chips when you think maybe a beer would be nice. But with a beer you need some peanuts... Finally, when the "hey, you're full" signal from your stomach hits your brain, you realize just how many things you've consumed on a binge. Time to start the diet. And dieters are worse once they lapse back into their old eating habits.

I've seen chain smoking, but I've never really seen this type of "chain-eating" in Japan. Snacks in Japan seem fewer and farer between. Moreover, Japanese meals tend to be less rushed slapdash affairs (fewer wives working, pressure from live-in baachan on the daughter-in-law to make a real meal for her and the kids), and then there's more rice, pickles, fish, and "okazu" side dishes (between seven and nine per meal I'm told is ideal) that tend to be less of the higher-calorie "chee-tos and chips variety".

But then again, even if this is true, is Japan going to remain like this? Indeed, more Japanese wives are working nowadays and more baachan are out of harm's way in nursing homes.

I answer, even if it changes, the calories are going to stay low because Japanese can allow themselves to eat less. Why? There isn't so much pressure here to eat more.


Urban Folklore Alert!: According to one of my Cornell Econ 102 lectures, there was a psych test on consumer demand done in a pizza parlor, where some number of people were told to eat as much pizza as they wanted. Halfway through the spree, half of the testees were told that their meal would be free, and the other half would have to pay a flat rate for their night out.

What do you think happened? Who ate more? Surprisingly enough, the people who got their meal FREE ate more--thinking that this was a chance for them to get more for their money (my first suspicion was that the freebies would only eat until they were satisfied since they weren't paying anyway). The "smorgasbord philosophy"--go to the salad bar with a pitchfork in order to beat the system--feeds into the mindset prevalent in America that more is better; a bigger plateful of food for the same price means more satisfaction and value.

(Check out an Economist Jan 1997 LEXINGTON article, theme: "Americans value bigness", which echoes this sentiment. Came months after my essay.)

Verily, Japanese also fill their bowls to brimming at their local tabehoudai palace. But in America, then kicks in the "Ethiopia Guilt Complex" (forgive the crassness but it's illustrative). Americans must not leave any food on their plate--think about all those people starving overseas yet here we have more than we can eat. So finish it up--better than putting it into the garbage. Eyes bigger than the stomach.

But in Japan I see people having very little problem with leaving things uneaten on their plate(except for the rice--the wartime "farmers guilt complex" still exists). If you doubt that, walk out of a restaurant in Japan and look at the empty neighboring tables as you go by--lots more food left behind than I'm used to. Or else, hark back on your first time drinking with people here in Japan--where you get trashed because your Japanese host has as much a problem with your glass being empty as you have leaving behind a little booze in your glass and letting it go to waste. You have to learn to leave some liquor behind if you want to save your liver.

More importantly, Japanese don't seem to mind smaller portions. Comparable Chinese food menu items have far smaller servings in Japan than in the US. There is no "thirsty-two ouncer" (how big has it gotten now?) in Japanese Seven-Elevens, and a "large coffee" is never the size of a flower vase here. American companies (such as Mr Donuts) have had to reduce the size of their items to appeal to local tastes, and it's only within the past decade where vended soft drinks have graduated up to "American-size" 350 ml cans. Volume is king in the United States because it is intertwined with values of value.

Hence in Japan people tend to be satisfied with a fixed, smaller portion of comparatively lower-calorie food, whereas Americans want more, get it, and then find they have to eat it all up. In Japan, it goes to waste. In America, it goes to your waist.


Note, for a change, I am making few value judgments in this essay. I just want to point out something I feel few Westerners, particulaly Americans, pay little attention to, despite the fact that it affects their standard of living and daily lives far more than visible trade balances. Eating habits. We follow them every day, three times a day. Though there is a lot of noise in the equation, the maxim that "you are what you eat" holds. Eating badly will in the long run affect personal longevity and self-image. America has already resigned itself to being fat (popular culture, be it Roseanne or Oprah or the Far Side, is ballooning, and the "futile effort" and "I've got a weight problem--I can't wait to eat!" jokes are presented with sarcastic abandon in the sitcoms and daily funnies). Japan, despite its image as a economic sumo wrestler (in The Atlantic, etc.) has not reached this stage. If Japan's present attitudes towards what and how they eat continue, perhaps it never will.

Good for Japan.

Dave Aldwinckle



(Source: The Economist Pocket World in Figures 1996, p. 73)

1 GREECE 4152

2 DENMARK 3675

3 GERMANY 3537


5 FRANCE 3491

6 BELGIUM 3460

7 SWEDEN 3442


9 ITALY 3323

10 AUSTRIA 3320

11 EGYPT 3310

12 LIBYA 3290 UAE 3290

14 BARBADOS 3220

15 CANADA 3207

16 TURKEY 3200

17 LEBANON 3140

18 CUBA 3130 SOUTH AFRICA 3130


23 IRAQ 3100




27 MEXICO 3060


29 KUWAIT 3040

30 MOROCCO 3030

31 IRELAND 3023

32 IRAN 3020

33 SPAIN 3014

34 PORTUGAL 3009

35 ALGERIA 2940

36 NORWAY 2938


38 MAURITUS 2900

39 BRUNEI 2860 HONG KONG 2860



43 BAHAMAS 2780

44 FINLAND 2775


47 BRAZIL 2730

48 COSTA RICA 2710 JORDAN 2710

50 URUGUAY 2690

51 PARAGUAY 2680

52 MALAYSIA 2670

53 JAPAN 2647

54 CHINA 2640




58 JAMAICA 2560

59 CHILE 2480

60 LAOS 2470

NB I like the way North Korea is just a little above its southern rival...

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Portions Copyright 1996-2003, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan