Thanks to everyone who sent this in yesterday, and sorry I didn’t get to it sooner.

Under a national law that came into effect two months ago, companies and local governments must now measure the waistlines of Japanese people between the ages of 40 and 74 as part of their annual checkups. That represents more than 56 million waistlines, or about 44 percent of the entire population.

Those exceeding government limits — 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women, which are identical to thresholds established in 2005 for Japan by the International Diabetes Federation as an easy guideline for identifying health risks — and having a weight-related ailment will be given dieting guidance if after three months they do not lose weight. If necessary, those people will be steered toward further re-education after six more months.

“Further re-education.” I don’t even want to speculate.

To reach its goals of shrinking the overweight population by 10 percent over the next four years and 25 percent over the next seven years, the government will impose financial penalties on companies and local governments that fail to meet specific targets. The country’s Ministry of Health argues that the campaign will keep the spread of diseases like diabetes and strokes in check.

The ministry also says that curbing widening waistlines will rein in a rapidly aging society’s ballooning health care costs, one of the most serious and politically delicate problems facing Japan today.

I trust I don’t even need to rant about why this is so fucked-up, or point out that yes, it could happen anywhere. I’ll just say this: As much as I feel for fat people in Japan right now, in a sick way, I’m sort of glad one country has actually gone ahead and done this. Because A) the outrage over it might wake people up to how insane it is for the government to try to control people’s bodies, and B) I’d bet everything I have they won’t reach those goals of shrinking the overweight population or reducing health care costs. So maybe 7 years down the road, with that failed effort there for all to see, we can get real about dieting and health.

A girl can dream.

Update: Sweet Machine said this in comments yesterday, and I think it needs to be moved up to the post.

I just want to throw a word of caution into this thread: as we talk about the cultural differences that may affect people’s reaction to this Japanese governmental policy, let’s be careful not to indulge in essentialism or stereotyping of Japanese or other Asian cultures.

70 thoughts on “Metabo”

  1. Even if people lose weight on a three- to six-month basis as a result of their public shaming and “re-education,” good luck on that whole seven-year plan.

  2. I work with a guy who is 100% japanese about that, it’s amazing how indifferent as a culture they are to the idea of this. 1. Most of the people there find nothing wrong with this at all 2. Just from talking to Tim and Junko they said well it’s not a big deal to us cuz Japanese people don’t usually get eating disorders O_o;

    I kind of let them know, all people can get eating disorders even Japanese, their country just chooses to ignore it and that’s sad….

    People will still get diabetes, have heart attacks, high blood pressure and have strokes(Anyone notice 3 of the 4 things listed are directly related to stress, which Japanese culture puts high stress on perfection)

    So that’s my tid bit on that

  3. I lived in Tokyo for three years about 20 years ago. I haven’t been back since, but I have many Japanese friends in the US and in Japan, and so I hear the latest news. Anyway, when I was there, I almost never saw any fat Japanese people. (I’m not exaggerating.) I think this campaign is mad on several levels; however, I do not doubt that the Japanese will be “successful” in reaching their goals. In no other country would this work (except maybe Singapore), but I could easily see it working in Japan. It’s just different over there: everyone is focused on the “well-being” of the group, not the individual (there are many pluses to this [immaculate subways, safe cities, etc.] as well as minuses). And so they will all follow this plan assiduously.

  4. To reach its goals of shrinking the overweight population by 10 percent over the next four years and 25 percent over the next seven years

    That’s a chilling choice of words, considering it can be interpreted as a) literally “shrinking” these people via weight loss, b) decreasing the number of people who are overweight, via weight loss, or c) decreasing the number of people who are overweight, by any means necessary.

  5. I was showing this to a few friends the other day and they thought it was funny because it was so ridiculous. FUNNY? No. That response is even more infuriating.

    I spent three years living in Japan and I’ve been through their stupid health exams. The exams are extremely humiliating, even when I did fit into their idiotic “healthy” guidelines for the most part (though they freaked out when my resting pulse rate was too low, and told me I should eat more “meat and fish” because my cholesterol was below 150 at the first exam). There is no privacy; everything is done at the workplace in front of all your coworkers. Everyone gets in a line and moves from station to station.

    There is EXTREME pressure to conform in Japanese society. If they want to make people fit in a box, the culture will push people to fit into that box, and most people will try and conform. I’m just really worried what the result is going to be when some people try and try and try and don’t fit. While the Japanese have a reputation for being slim, and while the population is much thinner than the US population, people do put on weight as they age (um, duh?) and a lot of middle aged people are chubby and wouldn’t fit in these draconian guidelines.

    I’m even more worried about what’s going to happen to hiring practices. Are fat people going to find it more difficult to get jobs? Will there be an even greater stigma associated? There are certain classifications in Japan where there is stigma attached to belonging to a certain group making it very difficult to get jobs or get married (e.g. Burakumin), but waist size is right out there for the world the see, making it even easier to discriminate. You don’t need to dig through a person’s background to see if s/he is fat.

    Plus, 33.5 inches for men? WTF? I was talking to a THIN male friend about this (he’s 5’9″, about 158 pounds I believe) and he has a 32 inch waist. That’s…not really any room to be anything but thin.

    @Erin: Eating disorders are common in Japan, and extreme dieting isn’t particularly seen as a cause for concern. It’s just that 1) people don’t see extreme diets as warning signs and 2) NO ONE TALKS ABOUT IT. A big part of the culture in Japan is “let’s throw this under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist and it will all go away.” This is the same attitude that has resulted in, say, separate train cars for female passengers instead of reprimanding or punishing men who sexually harass women on the train (that way, if the woman complains, the train company can say “if you didn’t want that, you should have been on the “females only” car).

    Sorry, didn’t mean to write a novel there.

  6. Exactly, jazzy. I didn’t think of it in quite such terrible terms, but the first thing I thought of was that companies being fined for overweight employees = overweight employees being fired. Lots and lots and lots of them. :(

  7. Himawari knows what she’s talking about, and said it much more eloquently and interestingly than I did. By the way, for one used to total privacy in medical matters, NOTHING was more humiliating and horrifying than getting a GYN exam over there 20 years ago!

  8. @himawari

    That’s what I was saying, they just ignore it. It was a shock to me that they said “Well they’re not as much of an epidemic in Japan as they are in the US” and I know that bull because half the girls in Anime have eating disorders… seriously, cartoon characters with eating disorders and this is normal and ok. They ignore it, that’s not ok, but that’s their culture

    My friend Tim said “I’m glad actually, maybe it will whip me into shape.” I frowned at him and said he was fine how he was…

  9. Plus, 33.5 inches for men? WTF? I was talking to a THIN male friend about this (he’s 5′9″, about 158 pounds I believe) and he has a 32 inch waist. That’s…not really any room to be anything but thin.

    Yes, exactly. My husband (who is 5’8″) has a 33-34″ waist. He’s got a little bit of middle-age pudge, but he definitely isn’t fat. However, the measurement is probably based on this study, that determined that men with the smallest waists had the lowest risk for diabetes.

  10. I’e got a 5′ 10″ snowboarder, marathoner, mountain-bliker boyfriend with a sixpack at 34 inches!

    Sure he’s a little tall for the Japanese average…

  11. Sandy over at JunkFoodScience wrote about this the other day and suggested that the government of Japan might be pushing this in part to push more of the costs of healthcare onto private companies (the fines for companies that have non-conforming workers will be, pardon the pun, hefty).

  12. Right now, in Korea and Japan and other traditionally thin Asian countries, people are very worried about gaining weight due to their westernized diet. There truly were no variations in body types when everyone ate the traditional diet. Everyone looked very similar in height and weight. Many people worried about losing appetite and weight.

    So as they see fatter people especially kids, they are getting freaked out and are on this crazy ‘healthy’ slimdown bandwagon. Many Asian girls already eat very little to keep their extreme petite figure. Asian women have this ideal of super small slender body type and if you don’t conform, you don’t fit in and not to fit in is not good.

    BTW, I feel as though many white ideals of body type are like asian traditional body type. The super slender look is very Asian as well as long stick straight hair. Odd but it just struck me as I was writing this.

  13. I forgot to write that Koreans would always say how cute and chubby I was when I was 130 lbs. Their ideal is 90 – 100 lbs. RRRRR I used to get really riled up when older people would comment on my fat since Koreans have no boundaries.

  14. I also forgot to write that my aunts used to weight around 75 lbs and one aunt still does and my other aunt is really worried that she is 125 lbs. She drives me crazy by asking me continuously how she could lose some weight. RRRRR

  15. Japan is much more a culture of conformity, and they see very little wrong with shaming people into being just like everyone else. So far as Japanese culture is concerned, your failure to conform is just that, your failure. It is not a failure of the system. In a culture that accepts suicide as a legitimate way to atone for shaming others, I have no doubt this will work to shrink the overweight population. As I understand, most life insurance policies over there even cover suicide, where they don’t here, so much.

    If you have a society based on the idea that people are cogs in a machine, the idea of being infinitely replaceable sounds pretty good. What scares me is not that they are doing it (if anyone would, Japan is it) it is that we may be too far into that mentality to avoid it ourselves.

  16. This chills my blood. Thank God I don’t live in Japan. I just pray this draconian model of compulsory “health” doesn’t make it into the UK before the world realises it doesn’t stand a hope in hell of working.

    “By the way, for one used to total privacy in medical matters, NOTHING was more humiliating and horrifying than getting a GYN exam over there 20 years ago!

    They made you do that in public?!

    Christ on a motoorsickle.

  17. When I see my students, not one of them close to overweight, all writing New Years resolutions to “hard diet” yeah, I’m a little worried. Especially in high school, 9 times out of 10 their “lunch” consists of some pastries from the convenience store. They can barely stay awake the whole day.
    And there’s already a stigma on fat people. I live in Tokyo and there are only a handful of stores where I can buy clothes, and a mail order service. When I lived in the countryside there was one shop. Celebrities who happen not to be (or remain) stick thin are pretty ruthlessly lampooned, even when they have a pretty big frame and are obviously meant to carry some bulk. I don’t know, maybe the reason you don’t see fat Japanese people is because they’re all naked until the mail is delivered.
    Then there was the pair of women in a restaurant bathroom, taking turns vomiting up their dinner, congratulating themselves when it was done, brushing their teeth before rejoining their dates.
    This is only what I’ve observed. I don’t think it’s meaningless though. I hate seeing my students starving themselves.
    Of course, there is the fear of a Westernized diet, as mentioned above. For example, fast food is everywhere. Yesterday I was standing at a downtown intersection with a McDonalds on one corner, a Wendy’s on the other, and Starbucks within easy viewing distance. I don’t think battling fast food is a bad idea. It’s far too little, far too late, and not the point of this insanity, though.
    The one thing I do wonder about, and I don’t think has been mentioned, is the issue of racism. I wonder what role that will play as Japan’s population slowly, painstakingly diversifies. Japan already seems terrified by the idea. More foreigners means more body shapes. Will this be yet another barrier to foreign workers?
    I don’t know. I think this is madness.
    (Also, I think this is my de-lurk here. Hello!)

  18. Any reactions from the Japan Sumo Association?

    lol I’ve been wondering about that, too. They used to be sex symbols … not anymore? :(

    I predict that after those seven years they’ll discover that people actually are slimmer, but the rates of heart disease etc. have miraculously increased. Wanna bet?

  19. Also, hello new banner??? *giggles*

    And this is where I realize that I’ve been using a non-existent e-mail address for weeks. :O Which means I get a new monster. Yay!

  20. This is just stupid. I don’t have any other words for it.

    Next thing you know they’ll make a horror movie about a fat ghost with long stringy hair haunting restaurants.

    Enough is enough.

  21. I live in Japan, but I haven’t really talked with anyone about it – the whole thing just depresses me. As several commenters have mentioned upthread, Japan is a conformist, almost hive-mind-like society. There is absolutely no respect, let embracing, of individuality, and I would say that a very high percentage of the population are constantly in fear of being shamed and held out as being different from the group.

    Extreme dieting is seen as completely normal here, and the quackery involved in weight-loss products is nigh on unbelievable.

    bear is right about clothing too. I’m probably around 220 pounds or so (I don’t own scales), and I’m at the very top end of fat-girl clothes sold in stores. You can find stuff – there’s a couple of stores specifically for larger sizes, and most department stores have a plus section too.

    I’ve been living here for a year now, but I just try not to let it bother me. As a gaijin, I get a pass, I suppose, I’m allowed to be fat. And I have pretty fashion sense, which gets even my slender Japanese coworkers commenting on my outfits! XD

  22. I used to live in Japan too and I’m going to echo what a lot of people are saying and, yeah, this is not going to go down as Kate thinks it will. Japanese people are used to an amount of “official” (school, work, government) involvement in their lives that is completely unthinkable to people in the West, especially when it comes to health exams, so no one is going to see this as an overstepping of boundaries. There will be no outrage. Period. I’d love to be wrong, but it’s just not going to happen.

    Also there will be no point at which anyone goes “Hmm, we’ve had this program in effect for 7 years and it’s not working. Let’s change it!” It will just become accepted as a fact of life, even if it’s dumb and no one likes it. If I had 5 yen for every thing like that in Japan I’d be rich.

    Really, the only condolence is that there aren’t many fat people in Japan, so probably not that many people will be affected. Which is horribly sad.

  23. I think there are more than there used to be, though. I live in Shibuya, young people central, and there are definitely chubby teens around here! And plenty of apple shaped older people, although heavy heavy people are pretty rare.

    I do wonder if that’s because the national diet is changing and they are eating more processed junk than they used to.

  24. I should clarify that when I talk about outrage and eventually getting real, I was actually thinking more of other countries, after watching Japan’s example. I don’t know enough about Japanese culture to guess at how it will play there, but it sure sounds like nobody will care. Yikes.

  25. Dame desu yo!

    I want to go teach in Japan. Now I’m nervous to go. I wonder if I’ll even make it into the program? My waist is about 35 inches… but I’m only 5 feet tall and not built very heavily. Especially by slender-Asians standards, that is decidedly padded!

    I too, worry about the amazing tradition of Sumo wrestling. I would hate to see it become a thing of ridicule as it slowly, painfully dies… when it has always been a proud and powerful sport full of big, strong, healthy, sexy men. Whenever my non-FA friends put down their size I always tell them “think like a Sumo!” I refuse to give up that rallying cry!

    Man, I even have this darling bento box on its way in the mail that I bought for my lunches. I always thought of the Japanese as people who loved food and who tried to treat their bodies well. I am sad to hear they buy into the “Modern” vision of “health” and “beauty” as readily as they welcomed McD’s. Guess I got a really skewed picture from my Japanese friends at college! I think Takahashi-sensei must’ve either lived somewhere out of the way or had a sort of romantic vision of home.


  26. Wouldn’t there be an exception for Sumo wrestlers? I don’t know much about Japanese culture, but it seems that Sumo wrestlers are already set apart from the mainstream. Most Japanese wouldn’t think “how come it’s okay for them and not me,” they’d think “I’m not a Sumo wrestler so of course I wouldn’t be excepted from this”.

  27. “curbing widening waistlines will rein in a rapidly aging society’s ballooning health care costs”

    The rising health costs for old people are because they live to be so damn old. Not that this is bad, but it has nothing to do with being fat.

    And I’m not saying there are no fat old people there, but I lived in Tokyo for five years and most of the elderly I saw were extremely slight and thin. And healthy. I’m not sure what is going on here. My Japanese husband says the term “metabo” is not a catch-all phrase for obesity, but refers specifically to a type of situation which I think we’d refer to as “visceral fat”? Fat that is not visible from the outside, but accumulates around the waistline and is the most dangerous kind. Well, then why measure people’s waistlines if it’s deep inside the body?

    As much as I enjoyed many aspects of life over there, it was a huge relief for me to come back to the U.S. I truly pity the few overweight Japanese people I’ve seen there. Talk about stress.

  28. hey Sugarleigh – don’t stress if you want to come over here and teach! I’m a teacher here myself, and my waistline is bigger than 35 inches. You’re not Japanese, so you most likely won’t be having these health checks – besides which, I suspect most companies wouldn’t even try, given the fuss we tend make over Japanese government intrusion in our lives.

    Also, I’m guessing you’re under forty, which also exempts you? I don’t mean to be ageist, and I apologise if I misread you. (I should say in that in the realm of English teaching though, being older is decidedly not an advantage).

    Sorry for derailing the thread!

  29. Adding to the complaints about clothes in Japan…

    Dude, even when you’re decidedly in straight sizes (I wear between a 6 and a 10, depending on cut and style) it’s nearly impossible to find clothes in Japan that are big enough. Of course, at my size, I’m considered fat in Japan (though most of you would probably think I was average or thin). I had to shop at the back of the rack, and even then, more often than not, couldn’t find something to fit my ass. I did actually buy a few good clothing items there, but they were almost all the biggest size available. And because the cut was always atrocious (though it was admittedly designed for the Japanese body, and I have a curvy European build, so I don’t blame them for that), none of the clothes I bought they really fit me all that well compared to clothes here in the US; I would buy things because I wanted a new shirt/pants/skirt/whatever and I was THRILLED to find something that ACTUALLY FIT. I realize this is an experience that fat people put up with every day in western countries, but I just want to emphasized just how much smaller is considered the cutoff point for decent clothes.

  30. I have a friend in Japan right now who works with an overweight lady, and the shit that poor woman goes through in the office would drive me to stabbing.

  31. What’s distressing me most right now (in a fit of self-centeredness) is the reactions of people around me, both in terms of people I know, and people y’all seem to know. It’s a sort of grudging approval. Like, people seem to it goes against our concepts of personal freedom and privacy as Amercans, but otherwise, it’s a pretty good idea. I just… maybe I didn’t get how much certain acquaintances of mine hated me (or, at least, hated my body) before. I get it now.

    Add to it this week’s cover of Time, with the Childhood! Obesity! Epidemic! (complete with half-headless fatty child and ice cream!), and I’m feeling pretty hated-upon this weekend. I’m definitely remembering Miss Conduct’s statement about how you know fat people have self-discipline, because they haven’t killed you yet. :/

  32. To put this in context, virtually all Japanese companies of any size already give their employees annual health exams for free, and height and weight are currently taken (in other words, BMI).

    Employees of smaller companies and others get the exam from their cities, typically for about $10.

    A typical exam (for those 35 and over) also includes vision, urine, a take-home stool test, blood, chest X-ray, a lower GI, blood pressure, and an abdominal sonogram.

  33. Thanks, Zoe!

    Don’t worry, I’m not offended, and, you are absolutely correct. The comments about college probably tipped you off– I’m a recent grad which is where I learned about the cool programs that will let you go teach in other countries. Japan is my number one pick of a foreign country to go to, mostly because it’s the only foreign language I know but also because of how much I enjoyed my Japanese friends from school.

    I have to admit I didn’t really think much about the fact that, oh hey, an entirely different culture, especially an Eastern one where the focus is definitely the group not the individual, obviously things are going to be different and some things might even be outside my comfort level. Which can be hard to do but it’s certainly possible. ^_^ I just hope people are able to look past where I came from and what I look like. They did so just fine when they were the ones here, but I’ve heard dark rumors that I try not to listen to that many Japanese don’t really like other cultures so much (which seems odd to me considering how much they seem to value borrowing the things they like from other cultures).

    But I feel comforted by that. Hope I’ll get enough time off while I’m there to go exploring some of those mountains, see a fancy garden, visit a bath house, and shop at a store that sells only gashapon! Yes, I collect tiny plastic animals that come from vending machines… which I guess further stereotypes my own age? Oh well. ^_^

    Whoops, now I’M derailing things. Uh, should I say something about the waistline thing, would that make it better? Okay, how ’bout: even though they live on an island, more than just Japanese peoples will be living and breeding there eventually (sorry if that terminology offends anyone, I did just get back from a dog show)… I think the less “pure” their bloodlines become, the more varied their looks are going to get… I hope they don’t become entrenched in a misplaced desire for uniformity. I think the human race is ultimately smarter and more compassionate than that!

  34. It’s interesting to hear everyone’s experience in Japan. Koreans have been neighbors with Japan for thousands of years but still sorta weirded out by the Japanese Hive mind. Koreans tend to be more natural, emotional, expressive, and more individualistic but still very Asian. Koreans and Chinese react the same way about weight as the Japanes in that everyone must be average or small size. People who are overweight are made fun of , given advices by others, and generally made to feel not accepted.

    One of my Korean american friends got so mad at her family when she went to Korea because they kept telling her mother that she was too fat at size 6. They also insinuated that she wasn’t very pretty either. They have no sense of boundaries in general in asian families but with regard to appearace, it’s open field for any types of comments.

    Most Korean clothing stores only sell up to size 8 or 10. If you are bigger, they just roll their eyes at you. Shoes also goes up to limited sizes. Living in the States is so much easier than living there even with all the sizeism here. I would not want to be even slightly overweight in Asia!!! No wonder many of the asian girls have some type of eating problems but not seen as a problem.

  35. I just want to throw a word of caution into this thread: as we talk about the cultural differences that may affect people’s reaction to this Japanese governmental policy, let’s be careful not to indulge in essentialism or stereotyping of Japanese or other Asian cultures.

  36. Viv, the shoes are big thing in Japan, too. While I could occasionally find clothes to fit in Japan, even though they were at the back of the rack, shoes were pretty much impossible, unless they were men’s. I wear a size 9 women’s, and women’s shoes only go up to size 8 unless you go to a special big feet store. I would tell people my shoe size and they would give me this “holy shit are you serious?” look. At one speech I gave for a community group, I got the question “What’s the hardest thing about living in Japan?” Because I wasn’t really in the mood to give a serious answer, I said “shoe shopping” and then told them my shoe size. There were audible gasps in the room (though most people laughed, thankfully), and I could feel all eyes on my feet. Seriously. For a US size 9 shoe, a little bigger than average for a Caucasian woman.

  37. himawari,
    Your experience in japan mirrors korean and chinese reactions. Many chinese and koreans talk about how big caucasian women are in clothing and feet. They don’t know how to deal with this at all. I’ve seen people shocked at foreigners’ dress and shoe sizes and gasp exactly as you described. It’s odd to me since I’m used to being in the US with variety of body shapes and sizes.

  38. I wonder if the Japanese population really was thinner in the past or not. When you look at historical Japanese artwork, not all of the people in it are thin. For example, here’s a portrait of the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi:

    Now this is an eighteenth-century portrait of a sixteenth century man, so it probably represents an ideal rather than his actual proportions, but it looks to me like his waist wouldn’t pass the 33.5 inch test.

  39. Like I said over at Harriet’s place, under this plan C. would be in the “acceptable” range for waistline, but not by much; his is 32 inches, and their cutoff for men is 33.5. And he is a skinny guy. If he gained even 10 pounds (something he actually wouldn’t mind!), he might be pushing it for them.

    For women, the cutoff is 35.5, and mine is 36. I am a giant fatass, and I barely exceed the cutoff. (It should also be noted that I lost 5 inches off my waist after discontinuing Effexor, even though I did not lose a lot of weight. Medications affect waistline yes?)

    So it isn’t even so much about weight here, as a “health” standard that’s even more arbitrary, if that’s even possible. They still do not get that GENETICS is by far the strongest predictor of who will have type 2 diabetes, if you’re younger than 70. They also don’t get that some of that “extra” poundage could definitely come in handy later on, as a protector against wasting illness.

  40. I second everything everyone’s said about their experiences living in Japan… I spent a couple years there, too, and had my own semi-public and embarrassing “health check” at the school where I worked. Including a chest x-ray IN A VAN IN THE PARKING LOT, with all the male teachers since no one let me know when it was the women’s turn. I also got to lie down on a table in the school gym with my shirt off in order to have an ECG, while other teachers waited their turn. Fun times!

    Soon afterwards we all received our health reports, with letter grades for each category. (For real!) What pissed me off the most was when my report was given to me not by the school nurse, or even by my supervisor, but by one of the gym teachers. He had opened it, of course, seen that I had a “B” on something, and suggested that I take up jogging. (By western standards, I am smaller than average. Not that it would have been ok to say that no matter WHAT my size was!)

    The following year when the health checks came around again, I decided that without making a huge deal of it, I was going to calmly refuse to participate in certain parts of the exam. I also told my supervisor that I didn’t want anyone else to see my health report, and he just seemed so surprised. Not surprised that I was rebelling but that those things (privacy! confidentiality!) were even issues for me. I told him I was especially uncomfortable with the PE Department being in charge, rather than the school nurse, and he gave me the most heartfelt apology on behalf of the school and exempted me from the whole thing. The thing is, it had just not occurred to him, or anyone else, that maybe not everyone would want the local government and all the school staff to know all their medical details.

    On the other hand, on the subject of Japanese culture, it’s true that the needs of the group are important and that people in general tend to be more… obedient, I guess, than in Western societies. But there’s also the widely known and frequently used idea of “breaking the rules silently.” Everyone does it. (Don’t like the school dress code? Don’t follow it, but whatever you do, don’t talk about it!) So although people may not get publicly riled up about stuff, it doesn’t mean they always agree with everything. Some people just put up with stupid authorities without complaint. Which is bad… but kind of heartening to think that some day, the people might rise up! Revolution!!!

    Still, it was a huge relief to come back to Canada after 2 years.

  41. Himawari, what you said in regards to Japan’s tradition of hiding issues under the rug, reminds me of the Hikikomori issue. Where kids will hide out in their rooms for days at a time, and instead of talking about it, parents just see it as being shameful. When I read that, I thought these are kids who probably could use a psychologist or psychatrist, and how troubling it is that they’re being ignored.

    What is interesting about J-Horror films, is that they do deal with these issues. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons they’re seen as so contraversial.

    It would be nice if Japan didn’t expect people to conform to such an extent, but I think that is a large part of their culture. It does seem that some of the young people are trying to change that though.

  42. henchminion: I can’t remember where, but I know I read somewhere that Japan is the only industrialized country where the average weight has *decreased* over the past 40 years as both men and women try to be thinner and thinner.

    Even more than women, there is huge pressure on young Japanese guys to be thin- men age 18-30 actually make up the lightest part of the population according to a magazine I read. And it’s true- I date jguys here, and two of my last three boyfriends have been lighter than me…and I’m pretty darn small.

    So yeah, not shocked. Waistlines and weight are a very common topic of conversation, with my friends paring their weight to the ounce, weighing themselves morning and night, and sometimes subsiting on popsicles and skim milk. The cultural theory is if you try hard enough, anything is possible- even completely changing your body. Gaining weight? You’re obviously not trying and letting down your group and all of Japan.

  43. Rachel: Yeah, that’s a really good point about silently breaking the rules. I got really good at that there. Actually, after breaking out in tears at my second health exam (not even going to get into that, but it was NOT my finest moment), I decided I wasn’t going to take it the next year. My supervisor gave me the evil eye for the next few days when I didn’t show up for the exam (it was at 1PM and I made absolutely sure to eat a good lunch, so that I could use the excuse that I wasn’t fasting for the blood test if someone tried to drag me there), and one of the people in the health division told me that I needed to go to a private doctor and get it taken care of. I said I would and just never did, because I was leaving in 4 months, anyway. (I had other bad experiences with doctors there, like the fact that they failed to diagnose my stomach ulcers for seven months; I finally got a diagnosis and treatment plan when I saw a gastroenterologist while visiting family and friends back in the US.)

    I think a lot of foreigners avoid the exams while over there; conceptions of privacy in Japan are really different than they are in the west, and it’s really hard to get used to for many of us.

    Jackie: Yeah, hikikomori is a much better example than the one I gave about the trains. I read a really good article about the phenomenon a few years ago; I felt really bad for those kids that they weren’t really getting any help. And while I didn’t have any extensive dealing with the mental health system there, I get the idea that it’s pretty rare for people to see a psychologist or psychiatrist; there’s more kind of the “this is a private matter and you should deal with it on your own” sort of attitude.

    It’s really interesting to read how so many of us have had such similar experiences with the Japanese health care system. And it’s really cool that quite a few of us Shapelings (or would it be Bouncelings now?^^) have lived in Japan!

  44. Those health exams are a nightmare.

    Another Japanese health system story: My American friend is married to a Japanese guy and lives permanently over there (and for the most part, is very happy). For the past few years she’s been miserable due to large fibroids that are causing severe, really severe bleeding and anemia. She should be getting an ablasion or whatever it’s called to get rid of the fibroids–but it will also end her ability to bear children, which she doesn’t want anyway. But as a response to Japan’s low birth rate crisis, doctors are dragging their feet about performing the procedure. Now, my friend is 45 years old! Doesn’t matter, it’s official, or maybe unspoken, policy. So she’s just going to fly home for the summer and have it done in the U.S.

  45. I think I understand what you’re saying about the health care in Japan. In Tamagotchi Corner Shop 2, you can run a health clinic, and it’s like everyone’s just waiting in line and getting checked up in front of other people. I guess that’s based on that reality in Japan.

    Speaking of Tamagotchi, I kind of was wondering what will happen to the Anime/Video Game characters who aren’t Metabo? I can see Super Mario being told he can’t eat anymore pasta, and he’d go, “Oh noooo! Mama mia!”

  46. Just sayin’, it’s pretty racist for Americans to say “The Japanese hate individuality! The Japanese love conformity! The Japanese operate with a hive mind!”

    I’m not Japanese, and have never been there, but I would suspect that it’s far more nuanced than that. I’d be okay with reading Japanese critiques of Japanese culture(s), but not outsiders making such blanket statements. No matter how long you’ve lived there.

  47. Colin: Thank you for the reminder. It is much more nuanced than that; I think a lot of us are more than just a wee bit jaded by our experiences and we’re speaking in general cultural attitudes. While these general mentalities are a reality that do exist, and while many parts of the health care system over there are a nightmare, especially for those of us who are used to privacy and getting second opinions (oh yes, that’s another thing, it’s generally seen as an insult to the doctor to get a second opinion, although that has been changing recently), there are many wonderful things about the country. I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I very much have a love-hate relationship with Japan. Some things about it infuriate me to no end, and some parts of general Japanese culture I like better than general American culture.

    The truth is that the general attitude is that what’s good for the group is good for the individual and that a lot of things that should get questioned (in my opinion) or at least that would DEFINITELY get questioned in the US are taken for granted as fact by the group because it’s “standard procedure.” Of course, not all Japanese people like it, and I’m sure plenty more don’t like it who don’t speak up, but these qualitative differences in general culture attitude still exist. There’s a fine line between expressing this and engaging in essentializing an entire nation. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I apologize if I crossed this line (especially as I’m an anthropologist and I should know better; I’m generally pretty sensitive to this sort of thing).

  48. “I had other bad experiences with doctors there, like the fact that they failed to diagnose my stomach ulcers for seven months.”

    This is amazing. Stomach ulcers are the one thing that Japanese doctors will diagnose at the drop of a hat. Barium-drinking upper GIs are given annually to people over 35, which is probably not a good idea given the radiation dose, and even smaller clinics have endoscopy devices if an upper GI shows anything suspicious.

    Perhaps there was a language problem?

  49. Just to echo the health-care horror stories – try to avoid going to a small hospital in a small town. The doctor I ended up seeing for a very straight-forward middle ear infection was, erm, quite elderly – not usually a problem, except his hands were shaking when administering the drops.


    Also, I’m going to take this moment to crow a little bit about shoes: I found a store that stocks up to a size 26! (I’m an Australian 9/10, and bought some gorgeous black pumps. Omnom).

    And finally, way, way word on the slender J-guy thing. I feel like I could snap them in half most of the time. My boyfriend is Japanese, but he’s a Phys. Ed. major and fortunately has few hangups about his body. (yay!)

  50. I tend to avoid doctors here, especially after a friend of mine went in for some minor complaint and was scolded over her weight. Although after reading horror stories here, there seems to be a universal constant of dangerously incompetent doctors. I also simply refused to do the health checks. If I go to work in a company, perhaps I’ll have to go through them, but as it stands, I played my gaijin card on the issue in my school.
    Regarding these metabo checks, I spoke to my friend at school, and she nodded, then pointed to the vice-principal, who apparently did not pass. She seemed surprised that I would find the whole thing at all remarkable. Given that microcosmic example, I would think that this absurdity will remain uncontested.
    Interestingly, I’ve several times been poked randomly in classes, which is of course remarkably rude. One girl trotted off and informed her friends that it was a “good feeling.” Make of that what you will. And because I have boobs, their size is the subject of great debate. My students are in the situation where they’re meant to be extremely slim, but breasts are considered extremely desirable, exactly like the West. (Although if you’re too big you’re considered somewhat freakish and have a hard time finding bras.)
    SugarLeigh, don’t even worry about coming here. Foreigners, especially teachers, actually have a lot of leeway when it comes to things the Japanese staff have to do. Clothes and shoes can be found. I recommend only two things: deodorant and toothpaste.

  51. All of this discussion and anecdote-sharing has been very personally valuable; I’m thankful to be able to read it. As someone who plans to go teach in Japan as soon as possible, these sorts of stories really do help in providing a precursor for what-or-what-not to avoid.

    A bit OT, but I’d like to ask – I’m a Canadian planning to teach; and I’ve been a bit curious to ask… I’m relatively ‘average-sized’ for a gaigokujin but I’m not white (my parents are of West Indian descent, so I look… Indian). Has racism in context of sizeism ever played into anything (with any non-White/non-East Asian looking individuals who taught)?

  52. Lauredhel, I’ve heard that they sell Wasabi toothpaste in Japan. Talk about a wake-up call!

  53. What I would really like to see from Westerners on this subject (or any other) is that, while we’re being cautious on negative stereotyping of different cultures, we also need to be cautious about the positive stereotyping, too (and fetishization, appropriation, etc.)

    I’m ceaselessly annoyed at the vast hordes of teen and 20something Westerners who have been fetishizing Asian (mostly Japanese) culture, and swallowing it whole without a single critical look at some of the very serious sociocultural problems there. They run around cosplaying Sailor Moon and then don’t seem to care at all that the age of consent in Japan is 13 and that people can buy used panties of schoolgirls in vending machines.

    I know some cultural relativists would like anyone outside of a given culture to simply leave it be, but when it comes to human rights issues–of which this horribly invasive “health” regulation is one–I really wish we would at least stop romanticizing these cultures long enough to acknowledge that real people are suffering and dying while we merrily chew on another box of Pocky.

    If this seems unduly harsh, let’s take this back a century or so, and remember how Westerners used to romanticize Middle Eastern cultures (including the concept of harems) without thinking twice about how women there are systematically abused.

    I think it’s great that people take interest in cultures not their own. It’s how we all learn, and learn to respect each other instead of lobbing bombs at each other. But let us please remember to learn about everything in our cultures of interest, and neither demonize nor sugarcoat them. Japanese culture is not all ninjas and Sanrio, folks, and some parts of it are quite nasty indeed. If you really love the Japanese people, please do more for them than just buy their pop culture.

  54. Has racism in context of sizeism ever played into anything (with any non-White/non-East Asian looking individuals who taught)?

    I lived in Japan 12 years ago, so take what I say with a box of salt. My teaching job was in a relatively small town, and I got all the weirdness that comes with that – people asking to touch my hair (or touching without asking), total strangers asking my shoe size (7, BFD), difficulty buying clothes, etc.

    I also met a lot of Japanese students who were afraid of foreigners – actually afraid. It was especially weird for me, as I pretty much define “innocuous”. Many were extra afraid of “black” (i.e. anyone darkish) people – they told me flat-out that they associate non-white foreigners with crime and violence. I’ll never forget the reaction I got from one class when I mentioned a gypsy ancestor – weird! Most people I met were very up-front about their prejudicea and were willing to talk about them, which surprised me. They were also (for the most part) really open to learning about “new” people. I didn’t see the “coding” we use in western countries, but perhaps that was because everyone I spoke to used English so they simply weren’t able to be subtle.

  55. Most cultures have some strong characteristics that are obvious for everyone to see. It doesn’t mean that every individual shares that trait but it does influence many aspects of life. The Japanese appear to have strong cooperative group behavior that other east asians don’t share as much and we can see the difference between Japanese, Chinese, and Korean societies though we have co-existed for thousands of years and shared many cultural similarities and share history. Every culture has negative and positive aspects to it and not to comment on various cultures’ obvious dominant traits seems to be odd. Many people admire Japan’s ability to organize, get together, and accomplish goals as a group.

    My Chinese and Korean friends agree that our cultures are not as polite or as organized as in the Japanese culture. Only someone without experience w/other cultures would assume that every individual Japanese are the same since human beings have individual differences and experience same events differently. Or that making this type of generalization implies that everything and everyone is the same in every way.

    Few of my Japanese friends were frantic to leave Japan because they complained that they felt stifled by have to conform to social norms there. This is also true to varying degrees in other Asian cultures as well. But many /most? Japanese like their culture and find that it suits them.

  56. the age of consent in Japan is 13

    The age of consent in Japan ranges from 13 to 18. It depends on the individual province (state?).

    people can buy used panties of schoolgirls in vending machines.

    That’s supposedly illegal. Even the Snopes entry, while saying that the claims are true, mainly relies on conjecture and unsubstantiated accounts that those vending machines still exist.

    I certainly don’t have any illusions about Japan being perfect. Their treatment of rape victims is appalling. Women who are raped completely blame themselves and often express a preference of death over rape. However, despite that, Japan has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world and one of the lowest reported and unreported rape rates in the world.

  57. I just want to say in defense of Japan that I’ve found the “group mind” to be really remarkable and even inspiring at times. Of course there are positives and negatives. You have to take it for what it is, but it can be a very powerful thing to belong to a group and know that someone is there to support you.
    I also have to say that I had a fairly positive body image before coming here. I understand that it’s just a number, but making a huge jump in clothing size (because of the sizing, rather than a change in weight) completely shattered me. What I’m working on is that all it proves is the arbitrary nature of sizing.
    Regarding doctors (and dentists!) there are good ones, I think, but it takes a lot of pruning. You have much, much better luck with a clinic that caters to ex-pats. Doctors and dentists will advertise that they took training in the West. It may not mean they’re good, but it’s usually an indication that they have a greater understanding of issues foreigners are sensitive to than someone who trained only in Japan. For anything but emergency care I’d be inclined to make a weekend trip to a clinic with a good reputation among ex-pats.

  58. Tal what you said could be true for any culture. Every culture has it’s positives and negatives, and usually what gets shipped to other countries only reflects the positive aspects of that culture.

    It’s like an episode of Family Guy I saw the other day, where Peter met his dad the first time in Ireland. They had a drink off, so Peter could prove to his father that he was acceptable as a son. So while they were both drunk, the dad said “Why aren’t you slender and good looking like other Americans?” and Peter explained, that most Americans look nothing like they do on TV.

    Most people realize that there is no perfect country, even though Japan has been popularly romantized lately. They understand that going to Japan isn’t like, visiting Hello Kitty world or what have you. It’s like saying a foreigner who comes to the US, expects Mickey Mouse to be president.

  59. My favorite Japan story: I visited a small, private art museum as part of a day off. After seeing the exhibits, I bought a postcard and and walked out. A few blocks later I heard running steps behind me. The young woman who had sold me the postcard was chasing me – I remember thinking how amazing it was she could run in her outrageous platforms. I stopped to let her catch up and she handed me the change I had forgotten – about $1 worth. I thanked her, she bowed, and then she ran back to work.

    Now, I also had people try to rip me off outrageously, including my own employer, but that story sort of exemplifies the best of the Japanese work ethic.

  60. This is amazing. Stomach ulcers are the one thing that Japanese doctors will diagnose at the drop of a hat. Barium-drinking upper GIs are given annually to people over 35, which is probably not a good idea given the radiation dose, and even smaller clinics have endoscopy devices if an upper GI shows anything suspicious.

    Perhaps there was a language problem?

    I seriously doubt it. I was in the office several times, and there weren’t any real problems with communication. I speak Japanese and he spoke a bit of English. I always prepared for appointments by taking notes on what my problem was and looking up medical terms I didn’t know that might come up beforehand. I made sure that what I wanted to say was communicated properly. However, I think one of the problems may have been that the doctor was scared of dealing with a foreigner; I was the only one who lived in town and he always seemed REALLY nervous whenever I came in (small town of 9,000 in a really rural area). Not very many 21-22 year olds (my age at the time) went into the office, either; there were very few in the town, period, and he was used to dealing with seniors. His main goal seemed to be to prescribe me something to get me the hell out of there. This may more have been a problem with an individual doctor and my location rather than a problem with the medical system. If I had gone to a GI specialist, perhaps I might have gotten better treatment.

  61. I just happened upon this after Googling “metabo.” My ex is living in Japan now and was complaining this evening about how people there are so obsessed with it.

    My family relocated to Hong Kong when I was 13-years old. I am an Asian-American and was 5’1″ and about 115 lbs at that time. My schoolmates there teased me relentlessly and called me “fat girl” in both English and Cantonese on a daily basis. It was, needless to say, a traumatic experience. I had never had issues with my body before that.

    A few years later found me teaching English in Japan. My weight never exceeded 130 lbs while I was there (the max I reached due to late night visits to the convenience store on the corner and the bakery I had to pass on my way home). No one ever commented negatively on it as people had done on a regular basis in Hong Kong. I had no trouble finding clothing to fit in Japan, even at that weight, which by the sound of today’s standards would just barely be acceptable. In Hong Kong I always bought clothing at the night markets where you could find “One Size Fits All” or as my family joked, “One Size Fits None.” My brother joked that by Chinese standards, I was morbidly obese.

    Strangely enough, I felt better accepted in Japan than I ever did in Hong Kong, which I didn’t expect. It’s also interesting to me to see the number of people who have immigrated to the US from Hong Kong and are now fat like the Americans they made fun of. I like to see what’s in their baskets while standing in the checkout lane in Costco.

  62. Ali, what are you talking about? It’s obvious you just “happened upon” this website, because you’re obviously completely unfamiliar with FA. I’m sorry the kids in your class made fun of you, but talking about how people who immigrated to America from China are all fat now (ha ha fatties! schadenfreude rules!) and that you like to look at what food they’re buying (presumably to judge whether it’s “good” or “bad” food, and then to judge them as well – and don’t forget they’re at Costco, so they’re probably going to buying twinkies and donuts in bulk, right?) is really inappropriate.

    I’m sorry to comment on such an old thread, but I was clearing out the posts I tagged “watch comments” in my reader, and it was really disappointing to have that be the last comment. :)

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