Big in Japan? Fat chance for nation’s young women

March 8th, 2010  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  13 Comments

From Washingon Post:

As women in the United States and across the industrialized world get fatter, most Japanese women are getting skinnier. Still, many view themselves as overweight. The trend is most pronounced among women in their 20s. A quarter-century ago, they were twice as likely to be thin as overweight; now they are four times more likely to be thin.

Social pressure — women looking critically at other women — is the most important reason female skinniness is ascendant in Japan. “Japanese women are outstandingly tense and critical of each other,” said researcher Hisako Watanabe, who has spent 34 years treating women with eating disorders. “There is a pervasive habit among women to monitor each other with a serious sharp eye to see what kind of slimness they have.”

Public health experts say that younger Japanese women, as a group, have probably become too skinny for their own good. Restricted calorie consumption is slowing down their metabolisms, the average birth weight of their babies is declining, and their risk of death in case of serious illness is rising.

“I would advise these women to eat when they are hungry,” said Satoshi Sasaki, a professor of preventive epidemiology at the University of Tokyo School of Public Health. “They should be satisfied with a normal body.”


  1. Jill says:

    March 8th, 2010at 12:20 pm(#)

    Tsk. “They should be satisfied with a normal body.” What a dismissive, unhelpful statement. Decades of cultural stigma and a certain mass-mentality cannot be flipped by a demand to just be happy with yourself.

  2. ALF says:

    March 8th, 2010at 12:58 pm(#)

    I was in Japan this past summer for school and one of the Japanese students we were traveling with asked me if I was considered small in America. I wasn’t quite sure what she was asking, so I made a joke about how short I am. She responded, “no, no, I mean in America, would you be considered skinny?” It was kind of an awkward conversation.

  3. Nicola says:

    March 8th, 2010at 10:37 pm(#)

    This certianly rings true with my experiences of Japan. It is not just being skinny either, one of my Mother’s students told her she would take a taxi rather than walk as she didn’t want to develop (implied unsightly) leg muscles!

  4. Nim says:

    March 8th, 2010at 11:58 pm(#)

    A normal body? Who wants that? I want a strong, sexy, healthy body!

    I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with striving for a particular body *goal*.. but that ideally should be a goal that’s healthy for you.

  5. Mrs. T says:

    March 9th, 2010at 12:15 am(#)

    I’ve been living in Japan for the last 7 months, and it really is a shock to see how tiny everyone is. In addition to just having smaller bones, most women my own age (late 20’s) are at a weight what makes them model-thin and bony. A roommate of mine once called women like that “Skeletors.” Also, starvation diets (puchi danjiki, or “a little fast”) are popular–and more shockingly, are often featured as “success” stories on variety shows.

    I’d also mention, though, I have seen WAY more heavy/fat/chunky people than my first visit to Japan 13 years ago. It also helps to get out of the Tokyo area for a reality check. Tokyo is similar to NYC in the fat-to-thin ratio.

    It seems since I’m a foreigner, this body scrutiny has yet to turn my way (openly, at least). I often get asked about how much Americans eat, and if Japanese food is filling for me, but no one has ever asked how much I weight, commented on what I ate, or looked me up and down. More than that, they often boggle that I lift weights at the gym. :)

  6. felipe says:

    March 9th, 2010at 4:50 am(#)

    I think the most interesting bit of this article is the quote, “Social pressure — women looking critically at other women — is the most important reason female skinniness is ascendant in Japan”. I think this is generally true and ironic. Women dress largely for women, men dress largely for men. The irony is that many (straight) women do things that make them less attractive to men, just as many (straight) men do things that make them less attractive to women. And both sexes do many of these things as an outcome of within-sex perception or within-sex competition.

  7. Sandra says:

    March 9th, 2010at 4:55 pm(#)

    Just a shout-out to Mistress Krista for the Tom Waits reference in the article headline. I also find Mrs. T’s comment interesting in that it suggests that the intense focus on being thin provokes a reaction in some people to go the other way. It seems similar to North America where eating disorders such as anorexia are increasing in both genders, while rates of morbid obesity are also skyrocketing. It might average out, statistically speaking, but neither extreme represents health or fitness. It’s just sad.

  8. Terry Gibbs says:

    March 10th, 2010at 6:54 pm(#)

    I have been wondering how you were, great to see you back…

    and thanks again for all you do..

  9. Brooke says:

    March 15th, 2010at 2:35 am(#)

    I find this article and the responses from everyone particularly relative to my own experiences in Japan. Over the years, I have lived in Japan for 4 years in total. I have also studied the language and its culture for many many years.

    I struggled a lot with the way people judge you on your appearance there. Being 6ft tall and blonde I was always going to attract stares, as I look so different to them. However, I found it impossible to not be offended when people (often older males) would comments on my body. Particularly as I gained a lot of weight whilst battling with my own demons whilst living there. Fortunately (maybe unfortunately!) I speak fluent Japanese so would always have some kind of informative reply to their comments.

    On my most recent stint living there, I joined a gym (of course!). The newest one in town, but it drove me crazy how they would control your programme and when you can increase your weights. Insane! Their training/workout ideas for women are so uninformed and old school…like reaally old school.

    Like any women who wants good results I work out hard and lift heavy. So I ended up quitting my membership and going to the nearby gymnasium and working out on the oldest, most basic machines. But boy was I happy! Sure taught the local Body Building Japanese men a thing or two about western woman who lift weights! There were never any women there. A couple of men, eventually had the guts to talk to me ( I think their curiosity took over) and they couldn’t believe that i lifted weights…..I think they actually though it was kinda cool.

    Being back in my home country of New Zealand, I have shed all the baggage that I gained whist living there and have also shrugged away any feelings of inadequacy. I am the fittest, strongest, healthiest and happiest I’ve ever been. I don’t miss those pressures of Japan one bit, and I don’t ever see myself living there again.

  10. Keiko says:

    March 16th, 2010at 7:23 am(#)

    I have lived in a big Japanese city for all of my adult life. I have a BMI of 24, and so am known as “the big one” amongst my friends, who tease me gently about being so “fat.” I weigh 125 pounds. Barely any of them weigh more than 100 pounds, and some of them are downright skeletal.

    One day I thoughtlessly handed a 10-pound dumbell to my best friend. She literally toppled over from the weight of it. She had never held anything so heavy in her life.

    In Japan, recently, the ideal of beauty is to be pale, slender, and rather delicate, without much in the way of muscle tone (despite their slim physiques, Japanese people are surprisingly flabby, especially about the abdomen). This goes for males as well as females, by the way.

    Many women have extremely poor circulation, and constantly feel cold even in summer. It’s really common for women to experience fertility problems. I think that the low birthrate here can at least partly be attributed to the obsession with keeping as thin as possible. Even pregnant women are pressured to avoid weight gain as much as they can. (I heard of one obstetrician who would scold his patients for gaining more than five pounds during the course of pregnancy.)

    I walk to and from work – a total of 5 miles a day – and work out with weights at home. I also eat an old-fashioned high-carb diet based on brown rice, seaweed, and miso soup, because I want to build my resistance. People think I’m crazy, but I don’t care. I have plenty of energy and I am really, really healthy! I never catch cold!

    By the way, there are many good things about the traditional diet and lifestyle of Japan – it’s too bad that not too many Japanese people live by them any more.

    Thank you for your post.

  11. Siobhan says:

    March 16th, 2010at 7:48 pm(#)

    Thanks for posting this. The comments were fantastic. So great to feel a part of a global movement of women who want to be healthy and strong, despite the pressures we all face in whatever country we’re in. Love it.

  12. Great links for the weekend! says:

    April 9th, 2010at 3:34 pm(#)

    […] the opposite side of the globe though it seems that Japanese women are becoming too slender.  Thanks to Mistress Krista for bringing this to my […]

  13. Marcia says:

    May 10th, 2010at 12:21 am(#)

    The fact that Asian women genetically have different body types than Caucasian women has to be taken into account.

    Asians are at a higher risk for heart disease at a lower BMI than Caucasians, and the World Health Organisation has a separate BMI chart for Asians.

    An Asian woman with a BMI of 24 would be overweight (in terms of health risk) and have an elevated risk of heart diseases.

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