My take on why Japanese people in Japan don't get that fat

The majority of the comments posted for this Guardian Word Of Mouth blog entry about obesity rates and fast food places are about Japan, and how few people there are overweight. It seems that people latched on to this paragraph in particular:

There would appear to be more at play here than sheer wealth. Japan, which isn't exactly poor, boasts over 3,000 McDonald's restaurants, second in number only to the US, and is also home to many other fast food outlets to boot. Yet Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world.

Eating and snacking in Japan is very convenient. In urban areas there are so many fast food places, food stalls, kombini or convenience stores stocked with all sorts of tempting and often fattening readymade food, and the world's most advanced food and beverage vending machine industry. The snack food industry is fiercely competitive. And, unlike statements made by English press sources like this one which implies that the fast food/junk food trend is some recent phenomenon, this state of affairs has been there for decades.

So at least in Japan the premise of the survey cited doesn't hold true.

That's not to say that there aren't overweight or even obese people in Japan. Japanese people, especially women, are as obsessed with diets as their counterparts in the U.S. or the U.K. Every day there's a new 'miracle diet' popping up. Go to Japanese food sites and every other ad there is for some sort of weight loss scheme. There are increasing concerns about the unhealthiness of fast foods and convenience foods.

Still, I think that at least for a while, people in Japan will continue to stay relatively slim. Here are a couple of reasons:

  • Peer pressure. Japanese society is largely based on how one fits comfortably and unabrasively into society, way more so than most Western societies. There is a huge amount of peer pressure to conform, and the pressure on women in particular to stay slim is tremendous.
  • More unplanned movement. Usually people who live in Japan, especially the urban and suburban areas, just have to move a lot more. Cars aren't practical at all except for longer trips, so almost everyone commutes by public transportation. That's not to say there aren't any gyms and such (there are, tons of them) but people just naturally get more exercise than in a typical American city.
  • Despite recent supersizing trends, generally portions are way smaller. There are Mega-Burgers and Extreme Meals and all of that, but the average portion sizes are still quite a bit smaller than in the U.S.
  • __Traditional Japanese food is quite healthy. Washoku or traditional Japanese cuisine is fairly low in fat and is centered around fish and vegetable proteins and vegetables.

But once you move out of the country, things change

A common complaint amongst Japanese people who go to live in another country, especially the U.S., is that a pretty substantial weight gain is almost inevitable. I haven't been able to find any formal studies of this, but time and again I hear about people gaining around 15 to 20 pounds within a year or so after moving away from Japan. It's not the Freshman 15, it's the kaigai seikatsu (overseas living) 15. The author of Japanese Women Don't Get Old Or Fat (my review here) starts off with a personal anecdote about how she gained 25 pounds after moving to the U.S. One of the bestselling diet books in Japan, _Tatakawanai daietto: waka musume wa kooshite yaseta!_ (The Fight-free (struggle-free) diet: My daughter lost weight this way!) is based around the theme of a food and health journalist helping his daughter who came back "with a fat body" after a year of study in Arizona. (She'd gained about 10 kg, or 22 lb.)

This weight gained happened to me too. I wasn't overweight at all until my family moved back to the U.S. when I was 17. Within the span of a year or so I went from around 50 kg to about 70kg. (I'm not actually sure what my starting weight was, since weight was not even an issue for me until I started to not fit in my clothes anymore!) I did lose a lot of it, but have since gained it back and more, hence my current efforts to get rid of the excess weight again!

Why did I gain 20 kg so easily? It comes down to fairly simple reasons: lack of unplanned exercise, lack of peer pressure, and the huge portions. Whenever my new school stressed me out (I hated that high school to be honest) I'd comfort myself with a bag of potato chips - the family size. We usually ate out as a family at local diners, where the club sandwiches could be stacked up about 15 inches high, and we started expecting home meal portions to be as big.

Living large around the world

I think it is just tremendously hard to stay slim in the U.S. compared to other places I've lived, which is why the obesity rate is so high there. Public transportation is not that available except in a few cities, and people just don't walk much anymore in the suburbs. So one has to make a special effort and set aside a specific time to get any exercise. Busy people aren't always willing or able to do that. Portion sizes at restaurants and such are large, and I'm fairly sure many people will complain if they were drastically reduced.

And, despite the attention paid to 'size zero' celebrities and such, I just don't believe there is that much peer or societal pressure to keep yourself slim. When the people around you are mostly neither slim nor fit, why bother?

I haven't lived in the U.K. since I was a child, but whenever I've visited there in recent years I gotten the feeling that it was becoming more and more Americanized in lifestyle - more reliance on cars, bigger portions and so on. Add that to the fact that traditional British food can be quite high calorie (pies, fish and chips, and well, curries) it's not too surprising to see obesity rates there soar.

As for Switzerland, it has some factors that help keep people slim, such as great public transportation, a natural tendency for people to get a little exercise, and reasonably sized portions. Also, people don't really eat out as much here, or rely on takeaways/takeout and readymade meals.

The bottom line is that home cooking is really better for you all around, health and taste wise. And it's the best way to take control of your own, and your family's health. (And all the better if at some of that home cooking is Japanese...a reason to keep coming back here to Just Hungry. :))

[Update:] See the followup discussion, Does going back to your culinary roots make you healthier?

Filed under:  essays weightloss japan

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This is interesting, as I have for many years wondered why Asians in general are much slimmer despite, like you say, the abundance of fast food joints and their sweet tooth. And I can second on your opinion about how even petite Asians 'expand' overseas in the US, UK and even Oz! Perhaps it's also to do with the fact that in Japan, even convenience foods are often freshly prepared? I mean, places like mos burger and freshness burger appear to be quite healthy. and the convenience stores as well as department stores provide so many made-on-the-day meals, as opposed to ready meals in the UK which have too long a shelf life?

I would add to the peer pressure thing that amongst my friends in Japan, if anybody ever complained that they were fat, no matter how thin they were, nobody would say "You're not fat at all! What are you talking about?" whereas people would in the UK. If I complained about feeling fat in front of my friends in the UK, everybody would assure me that I wasn't, but in Japan, people would just agree with me.
I also think that the size that people are aiming for is much smaller in Japan than in the UK. A lot of my friends who would be counted as slim or thin here were desperate to lose weight in Japan, because they weren't as thin as they could be.

While there are tons of places to grab a snack, there aren't nearly so many opportunities to eat snacks. There is no snacking in schools, and aside from omiyage, snacking at work is quite frowned upon.

I can't help but think that a good deal of the snack foods from conbini end up being meal replacements.
It's the 4 beers/ night salarymen who don't get fat that surprise me.

Food in most parts of Asia are very cheap and readily available and snack/street food are so tantalising and delicious. But most people are smaller in size and obesity (although an increasing concern in most countries) are much less of an issue. I have definitely noticed the much larger food portions in the US (my friend and I used to share a main course whenever we eat out!) and even here in the UK. My family and friends have always expressed their surprise that I have not put on weight, but then I do a lot of home cooking!

By the way, you have been tagged :) More information over here:

Once again, I find myself agreeing with you. Having lived in and out the country itself, there is a higher tendency to inhale junky food when it's so readily available. Shopping at Whole Foods or TJ's just makes me snack more than I should, just cause it's there. It's terrible. I do find myself putting on the kaigai seikatsu even though I walk a tremendous amount being in NYC.

However, after a couple weeks, my body starts to reject such foods and I yearn for fresh vegetables and soothing broths.

The unfortunate part is, the habit of eating chips and cookies is just more fun when everyone is doing it.

Mind over matter I say.

great post

This post made me laugh - mostly because as a Canadian living in Japan for 4 months, I brought home about 20 lbs as a souvenir. I should have stuck with more hello kitty items.

And you're spot on about portion sizes. It just so happened that my situation was ideal for snacking all day long, being fed big meals by the host family, and drinking at night. NOT that I'm complaining. I just wish the weight was as much fun to lose :P

This is so true! I'm not Jappanese (I'm Korean). I was adopted and grew up in America. I didn't have a weight problem growing up, my weight happened when I hit high school and beyond. When I was in college, I had a chance to go back to Korea for 3 months. I was just a little overweight, maybe around 10-15 pounds. While there, I ate everything in sight, but I also walked everywhere. I also ate more veggies, and more rice, and again, I walked everywhere...usually in atypical day I was walking close to 3-5 miles. When I came back to the states, my Mom automatically thought that I had been starving because I was so slim. Sure enough,1 month later I had gained back all my weight.

There was a big diet trend a little while back that spoke to that. It had people focusing on what their heritage is and then eating and being like the people from their heritage. Now whenever i feel the need to drop some weight, I heavily go back to my Korean roots and the weight just seems to come off. I usually have more energy and just feel more at peace. But it takes so much time, and that is a premium these days.

Hi M,

I agree with you that home cooked meals can be way more healthier than take out and dine outs.



My husband's grandmother remembers a time in Tokyo when most young women were quite rounded/'tubby', when the fashion changed so did their shape. Peer pressure and a will of steel (as well as a non-car lifestyle... even in offices people will kind of 'jog' between tasks to show a sense of urgency) seems to be the main reason most people are slim.

Another of the many reasons is that 'public' snacking is kind of discouraged - plenty of folk will tuck into a chocolate bar, bag of crisps/chips and even chips/fries on a London train or bus but few people would eat a kitkat or onigiri on a Tokyo bus or subway

Personally, I gain a significant amount of weight on my visits to Japan (and I don't even eat Ramen) because prepared food there is cheap, readily available and utterly irresistible. My husband initially gained weight when he returned from Japan to England to live with me. The reason is that we both gorged on food not commonly available to us (I have a lot of Spanish friends who also gained weight when they came to stay in London - it's a natural phenomenon not confined to those crossing the East/West divide).

It often takes a year (or more, or never) to adapt to a new diet and become happy and content enough in your new surroundings to have the strength of will to deny yourself those newly discovered treats and comfort food. As that is something I won't do on a short visit to Tokyo I'll assume I'll always gain weight there. The food itself isn't necessarily that lean, those with big appetites can opt for high calorie food in places where a large/omori portion costs only a little more or just have several meals one after the other (you can easily have two/three meals served to you in the time and for a similar price than it takes for one moderate meal in England).

But too many people would rather believe that it's somehow genetic and/or solely diet related rather than acknowledge the astonishing degree of willpower exhibited by most Japanese people and the sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit range of cultural pressures that keeps their appetites in check.

I lived in Japan for a while after college and lost 40 lbs without even thinking about it, I ate anything I wanted. And then I came home and got an office job where people brought treats everyday and put it back on, also without even thinking about it.

I'd say it was the regular exercise that came with just getting from place to place and less sugar generally (even Japanese sugary snacks have less sugar than American foods).

Well...I'm a 17 year old American girl and the new eating plan I'm on is certainly working for me as it appears that I'm losing weight everyday (it varies to a pound or a half pound daily). But despite what people think about my country, not all of us who gain weight eat junk food to comfort themselves or overeat. I gained weight simply because my mom never had the time to cook when I was a kid, so it was easier to pick up fast food or snacks at the store because of the convinience of it.

You also have to factor in not just diet and exercise when it comes to weight, but also how hormones and genes can affect it, too. I only started gaining weight when I hit middle school because I just hit puberty. Add that to the fact that I basically ate nothing but junk then, I was shocked to how much weight I gained. O.O Before that, I was a skinny little thing. xD And now...I'm finally losing it all.

But I do agree with you for the most part. The public transportation thing is a huge factor, I think. I never really had to use public buses and stuff in my own little town because my mom always drove me in her car. But in Japan and many other European and East Asian countries, they always either walk, ride bikes, or use public trains and subways to get from place to place. I actually wish I could find opportunities in my daily life to move more and sometimes I find myself wanting public transportation. I've never even been on a train or a subway and I seldom ride buses. O.o

But overall, I really hate to say things like "Oh, Americans are mostly fat" and say "Oh, the Japanese are mostly thin". x3

unless you're suffering from food poisoning and are throwing up your insides / having diarrhea, it's impossible to lose half a pound a day, fyi. you'd be dead pretty soon.

other than that, i agree its the combination of making that commute, smaller portions, and just overall healthier food. even the "junk food" here is provided in smaller portions anyways, and regular meals tend to be very spartan.

Actually, that isn't impossible at all. It all depends on how severe the diet is. I did a diet for 3 days, and lost 6 pounds from it. That's 2 pounds a day. Of course, I stopped after the 3rd day because I got sick because of it, and I did end up gaining 1/2 of it back over the next 2 weeks... but just saying, it's not 'impossible' without throwing up, having the runs, or food poisoning.

Actually, that isn't impossible at all. It all depends on how severe the diet is. I did a diet for 3 days, and lost 6 pounds from it. That's 2 pounds a day. Of course, I stopped after the 3rd day because I got sick because of it, and I did end up gaining 1/2 of it back over the next 2 weeks... but just saying, it's not 'impossible' without throwing up, having the runs, or food poisoning.

That is rediculous that you can't lose one pound a day in a healthy way. You can easily gain a pound in a day you can also lose 1 pound a day. I have a goal of losing 30 lbs and I have been losing consistantly 1 pound a day for 2 weeks 14 days I have lost 15 lbs. I only eat meat and veggies with no carbs. Which causes my body to be in constant fat burning mode. I eat as much as I want and I have more energy than I have ever had in my life. It has also lowered my bad cholestorl levels. Carbs turn to sugar and your body burns some of it but if you don't eat carbs your body burns fat as fuel. I don't eat breads or any processed carbs. Just meat and veggies. But not potatoes or corn...only greens and healthy veggies. I started out with no exercise but after two weeks on this diet I have so much more energy I have started going for long walks with my dog in the last 2 days. Will continue this diet as a way of life...I no longer crave sweets or nasty processed foods.

Most people lose weight fast at the beginning of a diet...hopefully you won't get discouraged when the weight loss slows down.

Haha, I know this comment is extremely late, considering the date of the article, but I think it's worth mentioning that if you even TRY to get 'unplanned exercise in America's suburbs, you're more likely to get hit by a car than lose weight. Seeing someone walking is so strange for these people that even though my school is within 1 hour walking time from my house, the mall, and the library, I can't walk anywhere for fear of being run over =( Nobody stops anymore =P

Also a very late reply! xD

But I think we also have to consider how big the average Japanese person's bone sizes in comparison to a Westerner's. I mean, if someone's a little overweight but has tiny bones they can eaily look skinnier than a person who's a healthy weight but has larger bones. And most of the Japanese (well, Asians in general I guess) that I know seem to have smaller bones than I do. Heck, I've got other white friends who have smaller bones than me! XD

Not saying this would be the only reason, but it'd certainly be another possible reason why we at least think they look skinnier.

When official obesity or overweight-ness is measured, things like frame size are factored. It's not a matter of just how people look.

I live in Japan and I am a foreigner. While I am tempted to buy all of the cheap snacks and pasteries, I find myself eating much more healthy when it comes to meal time. Usually rice, protein, and vegetables. I've lost a lot of weight over the past 3 years just from diet and daily life here in Japan.

Obviously, the answer is diet and lifestyle. When I lived in Japan, I lost a lot of weight - and I was thin to begin with. So, I went from thin to thin as a rail in Japan.

First, everything is portion controlled to tiny amounts. One can of cola in Japan is less than half what it is everywhere else. If you buy a meal at a restaurant, there is an expectation of standard portion - no more, no less.

Second, of course, is calorie intake. Japanese food is a diet historically formulated by very poor people; very little meat, minimal use of precious fats and oils, dependency on green leafy vegetables, roots, stalks, tubers. grain, and salt as flavoring.

Third is human motion. The Japanese do not sit at home, then walk 20 steps to their cars to go to the convenience store to buy a gallon of ice cream, then twenty steps back to the car and zoom you are home. Japanese lifestyle and infrastructure is not designed for this kind of sedentary life.

Put to the test, being thin is not a Japanese genetic blessing. Foreigners who move to Japan lose weight. Japanese people who move abroad gain weight - and plenty of it.

Now if we could all just live outside of Japan and live Japanese lifestyles we could all be thin and happy.

Genetics surely have something to do with it. They always do, don't they? If your parents and grandparents are a certain shape, you will inherit that shape...

I have lived in Japan on and off for many years and am amazed at the volume of food some of my female friends eat without gaining weight. I'm also astounded at the amount of sugar in a lot of the food, not just the snacks. Hello bakeries? They seem to be on every corner and they are FULL of cakes and sweet bread and also full of people (mmm, anpan...yummm).

I find it takes me ages to get used to the food here. I really have to watch myself or I gain weight quickly. But moving around by bicycle is definitely a counter-balance that I love.

I commute to a local gym (here in Nagoya) and am really impressed with all the old guys lifting heavy weights and the little old women - so lean and nimble. Perhaps the emphasis on physical education at school also has something to do with Japanese people being so lean.

One final note - I would argue that this is a culture that hates women's soft, fatter bodies. In Australia I am considered small - I have trouble finding clothes to fit - but after a week of being here I find myself getting paranoid about my body. TV commercials scream at me to lose weight, do something about my skin; whole programs are devoted to telling women that cellulite is disgusting; women's magazines have pages and pages and pages of diet food/drink/supplement advertisements. I feel like getting fat in rebellion. But then people would just stare at me more than they already do :-0

I agree with you totally, i was doing my undergraduate degree in Tokyo and i am naturally slim, i gained about 3 kg in the 3 years I thought OK that's good since i always wanted to know how to gain weight and I thought well this is good for me.
Then i moved to the states 2 years ago and I put like 8 kg even though I was doing almost the same thing I was doing back in Tokyo, I mean my daily routine didn’t change. I always use transportation and try to get as much exercise from walking as I could.

Unlike in Japan, you can eat junk food for really low prices and they are tempting everywhere this of course without a doubt will make the slimmest guy with the highest metabolism gain weight.
US should really start cutting down on those fast foods commercial and glorifying them in the media (sitcoms, TV shows…etc)

I think you are onto something with the societal pressure thing -- I read somewhere recently that you're more likely to be slim if your friends are slim.

Though it's possible that that's just a selection effect.

I'm kind of jealous of all these thin people. I got stuck with a thick frame from my Japanese dad while my siblings got my European mother's very small bones. While I'm at a "healthy" weight for my height and am definitely not out of shape (yeah, running!), I'm definitely not tiny. I haven't been at 50kg since elementary school! The weird thing is that I do live a very active lifestyle, since I don't have a car and walk EVERYWHERE. I used to think 5 km was far to walk, but not any more...

Living now in a place where a lot of importance is put on appearance, I've noticed that many of us are prone to eating disorders in order to be thin. It's kind of sad, really, to watch people I know go from looking slim and healthy to looking very thin, but sickly. With all the pressure put on people in Japan to be thin, is this as big of a problem as it is here?

Also, is it harder to be accepted in Japan if you are not as thin as everyone? I'm at about 65 kg right now, and that's the lowest I've been since middle school 10 years ago. I'm thinking about living in Japan for awhile, and am wondering if it's going to be hard for me being slightly larger than the average Japanese person.