02 September 2013

Japanese Health & Body Image :: the good

‘Japanese people are healthy.’ Of all the stereotypes that exist about this country, this is probably one of the most innocuous and accepted. Of course it’s not that simple; we can't say that this country is the ONE to have discovered how to be healthy, and the rest of the world has remained willfully ignorant, gorging on lasagna. It’s more complicated than that, more nuanced. That’s annoying because I moved over here hoping that I could, for once and for all, nail down the secret formula before I moved home to America, land of the fatso.


Moments before I write a blog post like this, I tend to take a deep breath. A pause before I jump off the cliff that is A Difficult And Nuanced Subject. Writing about things like this – body image, health, culture, food, big Ag – woah, it can be loaded. My pause before writing has lasted months on this one. It’s tricky, and I'll do my best, and I urge you to be gentle and have patience with me. 

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

I'm going to focus this on what I've noticed about Japan, rather than a condemnation of America, and I'll be breaking it up into two posts. One, today’s, is a more positive one, with a focus on healthy food and active lifestyle. The next one will be about body image and some of the problems I've witnessed in this culture. Okay? Okay. (UPDATE: Part II here)

If I was to distill the food culture of Japan into a short phrase, a lá Michael Pollan, I'd probably say something like this: Real food, dictated by tradition, in tiny portions. 

When we moved to Japan, we lived in the hotel for over a month and were eating out often. The first thing Amos and I noticed was the portion size. Traditional Japanese meals have several small dishes, each with only two to four bites. Arranged to showcase color and texture, the visual presentation is as important as the taste. The small plates spread out on a tray means that less food is given, and the chopsticks make you eat slower (you can't ‘shovel’). Your stomach has time to recognize that it’s full. This is the opposite of family style; there are no ‘seconds’ or ‘help yourselves.’ 

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

Even at restaurants not traditionally Japanese, the small portion sizes are quickly apparent. A medium pizza at Dominos is slightly larger than my outstretched palm. Cokes in the vending machines are 6 ounces. Hamburger and fry sizes are straight out of 1950. Small (the size below ‘tall’) at Starbucks is the most commonly ordered, and I've never seen anyone walk out with a Venti or Grande. It’s like Japan missed the “supersize me” movement. 

Once we moved into our apartment, I began to go to the little grocery store down the street, and I found the same thing. A bag of chips is 10 ounces, barely larger than snack size. A bundle of asparagus is 5 stalks. A loaf of bread is 1/3 of the size of the ones back home. It means that I go to the grocery store more often, yes, but it also meant that our food waste almost completely disappeared. Our portion sizes have decreased at home as I naturally bought and cooked what is available to me.

For the first couple weeks, I'll admit it was an adjustment. I was hungry! Amos and I would often stop by the kombini (convenience store) to pick up a snack because dinner didn't seem like “enough.” Slowly, our stomachs began to adjust. Small portions made me feel better; I rarely found myself too full after overeating. We began to order several small plates and share. We began to order a little at first and a little more later, if we were still hungry. Food is expensive, so there is also a financial incentive for this kind of behavior.

I also began to realize how FRESH the food seemed. Eggs yolks are bright orange instead of a muted yellow. All the fish is sashimi grade. Inventory at our supermarket is kept low and moved quickly. Sometimes things are in stock; sometimes they aren't. Produce and fruits are limited to just what was in season. Strawberries in early summer, grapes in late summer, figs in fall. Good luck getting anything beyond grapefruit and persimmon in winter. We eat a LOT of cabbage and broccoli. Even in grocery stores, food is expensive, especially fruits and vegetables. This can be annoying at times, problematic at others. On my last visit home, my doctor noticed my vitamin levels were lower than normal and asked what ‘color’ my plate was. I realized I'd been relying too much on greens. I now cough up the dough to add in bell peppers, and I do sincerely miss the variety and abundance of farmer’s markets and produce aisles back home. (Soon, you guys. Soon.)

We eat less here, and what we eat is fresher. But here’s the kicker: it takes NO more effort than our eating habits back home. In the natural course of living here, mimicking the old ladies in our grocery store, our diets have changed. I give no real thought to calorie restriction and we eat rice, mayo, pork, avocados, nuts, soy sauce, and a whole host of other ‘high fat’ or 'bad for you' foods. We don't eat gluten free or vegan, but we eat much less dairy and wheat. I have to almost seek it out when I want it. Shockingly, I don’t miss it as much as I expected. It’s there when I do want it, and to eat it is a conscience choice. I don't ‘accidently’ eat wheat or dairy here, the same way I don't ‘accidently’ eat high-fructose corn syrup. This makes me feel better. I don't feel deprived, but rather like my diet has been ‘right-sized.’ It feels normal, even to me as a bread lovin’ American.

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

What I am extremely envious is Japan’s cultural history of food. Given the homogeneous and relatively isolated environment, Japan has a very apparent and well-established history with food. There is little discussion on what is healthy and what is not, or what you should eat and when you should eat it. There are fad diets galore (last summer it was tomatoes and you couldn't find a damn one at the stores…), but there is also a consensus. Onigiri is a good lunch, nori is part of a balanced diet, and subtle flavors are an indicator of a healthy food, strong flavors of rich or fatty food. In a complete mind-fuck, fruits are at the top of the food pyramid, right up there with sugars and fats. Tea counts as water (even naturally caffeinated green tea). Fatty foods exist, for sure, but they are more 'real.' Karage, or fried chicken, has a higher chicken to fried coating ratio. It’s always recognizable as chicken, if that makes sense. You eat two pieces for a splurge – the large chicken part of the fried chicken makes it so filling!

More than food, though, it’s the lifestyle. For instance, Amos: to be him in Japan can be an exhausting experience. You wake up, put on gym shorts, you hop on your single speed cruiser bike and pedal 40 minutes to work. Change clothes at the office, then walk up five flights of stairs to your desk. There is an elevator, but no one is supposed to use it, even the poor guy who has to refill the vending machine. You sit at your desk, where office temperatures are kept at a balmy 85 degrees year round in the name of energy conservation. For lunch you can go to Indian or sushi, but more likely, you'll end up in the cafeteria where the food cost is subsidized by the company, and it’s pretty basic. When your day ends, you bike home, and dinner is served on a salad-sized plate. You and your wife ‘retired’ the dinner-sized plates a while ago when you realized they had become too big. You decide to go to the movies. Hop back on your bike and ride for 10 minutes. Park the bikes and walk down the stairs to an underground mall. You know there’s an elevator somewhere, but you've never been able to find it. You decide to get a beer at the theater. Live it up! Can’t do that in America! The beer is 8 ounces. 

This is Japan. You want to go somewhere? Walk. Cycle. Subway (which involves walking and stairs). Driving is expensive and inconvenient within the city, so when you want to go to dinner, you walk. Grab a drink with a friend? Walk. Japan is not ADA compliant, so there are few elevators and ramps, and if you do seek those out, you feel like a loser because only people who really need them, like stroller-pushing parents or walker-toting older people, are using them. 

Life in Japan is movement. It’s often sweaty and crowded and, simply put, not conducive to being big or heavy (or tall. Sorry basketball players). Japan has figured out that for urban centers to thrive, density is important, and the most efficient way for people to travel is by foot, bike, train. The side effect is that your body is in motion. It’s not foolproof – there are Japanese people who are overweight, and its not enough movement to compensate for an unhealthy diet or incorrect portion sizes. But it is a lifestyle and, like the food, it feels normal and healthy. It takes very little effort, and most days I do not ‘miss’ a car (as opposed to trying this in the States, where I felt the lack-of-car acutely). Similar to those 1950 sized hamburgers, it seems vintage and quaint, and then it hits you there maybe there is something to that tiny waist your grandmother had.

Amos works out much less than he did in Seattle. He’s lost about 10 pounds and full pant size since moving here. I did not think he needed to lose any weight at all when we moved, and then it just came off! It’s all through portion size, food choices, and increased daily movement. That’s the thing that shocks me about Japan: it can be very easy to be healthy here.

Oft times, health is tied to weight, and I do think there is a very strong correlation. But it is the movement of life here that keeps people mobile, with joints working, lungs breathing, muscles moving. This, combined with healthy weight, makes hearts happier and lives longer. Weight is a good indicator of health, but not the only one, and I don't want to seem like the two are interchangeable. It's Weight + Movement.

Now for a disclaimer: I have had to work harder since I moved to Japan. My status as a housewife is less mobile than my life back home, where I bused and biked to work. When I moved here, the snacks at the kombini were too enticing, and, thanks to hotel living, it took awhile to find a new balance. I put on 10lbs that I have worked to slowly lose and get back to my ‘normal.’ Look, being healthy in Japan is easy. I didn't say it was idiot proof.

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

Amos and I have found Japan to be a great place for us, and now that we are looking to moving back to America, we're thinking about what we will take home. There are many, many things that only work in Japan – often times, The Japanese Way is not exportable. Here, companies monitor employee’s health, putting them on exercise and diet plans if they show a weight gain at their annual check up. Is that exportable to America? Riiiight… for better or worse, that’s a little too Big Brother for our Independent Individual national identity. 

We can't, and perhaps shouldn't, take everything. But can we make a conscience effort to be mindful of portion sizes, especially when eating out? (Last time I was home, I automatically ate only half of a meal when I was at a restaurant, and it was perfect.) Can we consciously make an effort to eat fresh and unprocessed food, even if that means we shop more often at a farmer’s market and pay more for our groceries? Can we be upfront and honest with our bodies and be mindful when we begin to gain weight and stop it before it becomes a problem? In Japan, I've seen that to be old doesn't mean you have to be big. That is up there with one of the biggest lessons this country has taught us. More than chopsticks, more than kimono, how to age in a way that keeps extra kilos off and allows you to be mobile and active into your 80s… that is a lesson I hope to keep close to my heart as we head home. I want to grow up and be an old Japanese woman. 

An article like this will always be incomplete. Imperfect and prone to generalizations and bias. These rambling thoughts are simply my personal and anecdotal ruminations after living here for two years, especially as we begin to move home. There is so much more on this topic. I’ll post about the downsides, (and woo-eee, there are some). There is much to admire, though, about Japan’s food culture, about how the Japanese live and are healthy, and I am very, very thankful I was able to live here and see it.

1 comment:

  1. Hey - this is a very interesting post. I look forward even more to what you say about the downsides/negatives of Japanese food/exercise attitudes - there's two sides to every story! Your writing is great, as always.


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