Japan’s unhealthy obsession with food

Before I came to Japan I didn’t even know what a calorie was. I had never considered a diet nor did I know of skinny supplements. Every once in a blue moon I would step on a scale, but only so I could check the weight of my luggage. All that was before Japan.

Japan’s relation to food is nothing short of obsessive and schizophrenic. Anyone who has watched Japanese TV will know that an overwhelming majority of the shows are about food. No, not the Hell’s Kitchen or Martha Stewart variety, but rather food eating shows. Like a bunch of people trying new foods in front of the camera – oishii! (delicious). Or a TV-crew going to a remote part of Aomori to try ramen that uses a slightly different variety of soy. Not to forget the big eater shows, where famous (usually) skinny women gobble up 52 servings of food in one go. Quality television right there.

In real life, it’s not uncommon that people declare their hobby to be “eating”. There is an endless supply of all-you-can-eat restaurants and cafés to support this so-called hobby. Your Japanese friends will go on and on about food until you are brainwashed too. Hey, heard of that new pancake place that serves mulberry jam instead of strawberry jam? Wow. Let’s go queue for two hours! Did you see the TV-show about that ramen place? I’m sure its massively different from regular ramen – let’s go! Great. But Japan’s food obsession also brings some unwanted friends along: calories, diets, weight hysteria, body shaming and eating disorders. Yep. You’ve guessed it – this will be a serious post.

Split personality disorder
In a conformist society like Japan, the pressure to be like everyone else can be soul-crushing. This is especially true of being skinny, and the mixed messages in media do not help one bit. On one hand, we got shows promoting super-sized menus, all-you-can-eat restaurants and mulberry pancakes. On the other hand, we got a truckload of weight-loss shows and ads promoting pills that curb your appetite. Why? Because you need to stop eating all that food, you pig. In Tokyo, you’ll find stairs marked with how many calories you lose for each step. In markets and pharmacies, you’ll find an abundance of 0 calorie foods, supplements to help you burn fat, and bath salts that (supposedly) make you lose weight. In restaurants, you’ll find special “female meals” with much less calories than the regular ones. Do you understand now? Eat lots, but don’t be fat. Actually, don’t eat too much cause that’s not acceptable. Or just be very skinny, but love food. In fact, your hobby should just be eating. Okay?

Public body shaming is accepted
Don’t you just find it hilarious when overweight people are laughed at? No? Are you sure? Then maybe Japanese TV is not for you, because here, cruelly mocking overweight people on TV is considered the height of comedy. As everyone knows, fat people are stupid and only exist for our amusement. It is not uncommon that somewhat chubby people (mostly men) get pokes/pats on their stomachs to make them aware of this fact. But you don’t need to be overweight to be subject to bullying. Far from.

A few years back, Universal Music Japan held a public contract-signing ceremony for the group Momoiro Clover that had a “fun and light-hearted” element: a public weighing session. The six members had to weigh themselves in front of their fans – in order to pass they needed to be below “idol weight” (height -100 x 0.8). One of the members, Takagi Reni, missed the goal by 0.8 kg and had to reweigh herself two months later. That time, she passed with flying colours, and also developed an eating disorder until she ended up looking like a skeleton. Public humiliation really works wonders for young girls’ dieting goals.

No one can help you
Every now and then you come across media reports on famous people who might have eating disorders, like Princess Aiko. But having eating disorders is definitely not cool. You should just opt for being skinny without getting sick, cause that’s just embarrassing, isn’t it? Besides, you’d have nowhere to go for help. There are in fact no medical facilities specializing in eating disorder treatments in Tokyo (!) and it was only in 2014 that an eating disorder information and research centre finally opened. Many sufferers don’t feel like they can go to the doctor, which is understandable considering many of them are either ignorant or can’t offer help.

Japan also has a problem with under-weight babies. The percentage of low birthweight babies (under 2.5kg) has risen sharply over the past thirty years. Guess what one of the major factors are considered to be? Weight-control by pregnant women. Japanese doctors encourage this and would offer dieting advice to pregnant women who are one or two kgs above the “acceptable” limit. There is also a government-mandated waistline limit for adults aged 40-74 referred to as the “metabo” law. Although I doubt many companies actually implement it, they could technically get fined if their employees don’t fit within the measurements.

Being a foreign woman in Japan

“That’s really unhealthy,” said my new-found Japanese friend. I was 18 and had lived in Japan for three months.

“Uhm…” I said, scrutinizing at my half-eaten MOS burger. Didn’t look too bad to me – had plenty of cabbage and all.

“I need to go on a diet,” she continued, sipping her tea. I looked at her skinny frame. No, she didn’t. I told her as much.

“You foreigners are big and have different standards. In Japan any woman over 50kg is considered to be fat.”

Up until this point of my life, I had never had a conversation like that. But luckily, my dear friend introduced me to the world of tasteless nil calorie foods. I learnt how many calories there are in an egg, a bowl of rice, a MOS hamburger. My Japanese textbook taught me how to say “I am on a diet” in Japanese. I noticed that my usual S/M size in Sweden had magically transformed into L/XL in Japan. Japanese standards were creeping into my young little head, and I was stuck in something awful I didn’t realize was abnormal because everyone else around me was doing it.

The ignorant foreigner that I am, I used to make instant noodles in the evenings to help me study. One time, the dorm lady came by and said that I will become fat if I keep eating this late at night. She pointed at my stomach and repeated “fat”. I was shocked to be told such a thing by a complete stranger, but years later I understood that giving unwanted advice on eating habits is just standard talk. Many people will point out what’s unhealthy, high calorie, high carb, because your big-boned body clearly needs some proper know-how. Well, in any case, that was the end of the evening noodles.

The silver lining?
I eventually managed to save myself from the abyss of food obsession – perhaps it helped that had I moved away from Japan to a country inhabited by big and fat foreigners. Or perhaps it was a norm-related thing, you know, from “be thin and shut up” to “be yourself and don’t give a damn”. Or maybe just the lack of finger pointing – who knows. These days, I tend to shake off comments on my unhealthy living (that has come to include indecent amounts of plum wine) easily. But for young and impressionable minds, and people who are raised in Japan, the double standards and pressure can ruin their lives completely.

You know something’s wrong when the fruit that gets delivered to your office comes with a description saying how good apples are for dieting. Or when a show on TV promotes a morning banana diet promising instant weight loss, and the next day bananas are completely sold out everywhere.

Yes, Japan has very healthy, traditional foods and a life expectancy that is through the roof. But their unhealthy attitude towards food is damaging the people’s well-being. Pretending this obsession is normal is nothing short of throwing people under the bus of eating disorders, leaving them to die in slow motion – which is essentially what happens when you got one.

The silver lining? Not sure. Perhaps this is not that kind of story.

3 thoughts on “Japan’s unhealthy obsession with food

  1. Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read something like this before. So good to find somebody with some original ideas on this subject. realy thank you for beginning this up. this website is something that is needed on the web, somebody with somewhat originality. helpful job for bringing something new to the internet!

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