The crazy thing about working in a Japanese office is that, while knowing absolutely nothing substantial about your co-workers, you can still observe their most intimate habits. But maybe that’s any office, actually. I mean, when I worked in the U.S., there were a lot of folks I didn’t really know either. Although it seems like avoiding personal disclosure is one of those Japanese “things.” Eh, probably just my imagination.
Among the things I still don’t know in my Japanese office are anybody’s actual name, so I like to refer to my coworkers as Skeletor, Skeletor Jr., Ms. WhoAreYouAgain, and The Butt. The first three are Japanese, while The Butt, so-named because of her seated resemblance to an isosceles triangle, is, predictably, American.
Having studied these four subjects intensely for several months while scrawling observations in my field notebook, I feel thus qualified to report my findings.
Five Reasons Japanese People are so Thin
1. Okay, the truth is they’re not that thin. If you’ve ever been naked with a large number of Japanese folks, you know that many of them carry a little extra baggage. Which makes being naked together a lot less exciting, by the way. Compared to, say, an American from 1950, the average Japanese person in 2015 isn’t much different. The reality is that Japanese people aren’t all that skinny, but rather that Americans have simply ballooned to crazy proportions, making the Japanese, along with the rest of the world, look a whole lot better. Thanks again, U.S. of A. Perhaps a better question is, Why have Americans gotten so ginormous? Of course, Time Magazine recently did a great job of fielding that one with a headline alone: Good News: Cotton Candy Oreos Are Coming. Seriously, in what alternate universe is this reported as “good news”? Like maybe that one in which Mr. Spock has a beard, I guess. Heh, and people give me shit for taking advertising dollars.
2. They eat something other than massive amounts of carbs.
So I was in the U.S. about a year ago, and found myself in line at the supermarket. By the way, checking out of a grocery store in the U.S.?—-it takes about a thousand times longer than in Japan, partly because the cashier has to ask each and every person “So, how’s it going today?” But whatever, that gave me time to note that the giant man in front of me had a giant shopping cart full of virtually 100% carbohydrates: wheat bread, bagels, macaroni and cheese, frozen burritos, Ritz crackers, Cheerios, orange juice, ice cream, tortilla chips, cans of beans, jars of Ragu, 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke. Good job there, selecting entirely non-perishable food. Now, back to your bomb shelter and get your snack on.
Know what Japanese people make fun of me for? Speaking Japanese. They’re always like, We’d really prefer if you’d just speak English. Okay, but other than that: for eating so much rice. Hey, I really enjoy it; rice is delicious stuff. But Japanese folks don’t actually eat that much. They have a bowl for lunch, and maybe breakfast, but generally avoid it for dinner. Nor do they eat loaves of bread and cereal-goods at every opportunity. On average, I bet the Japanese consume half the amount of daily carbohydrates that Americans do. “Eating rice at night makes you fat,” Eriko says.
“Why do you always tell me this just as I’m about to enjoy dinner?” I ask.
“Just saying. Or maybe you could go jogging after you’re done.
“Or maybe you could get me a beer and the channel changer.
“I’ll just set out your Nikes by the door.
“Nikeees, baby, not ‘Nikes.’ Work on that pronunciation. And I am not going for a run tonight.
“I’ll let you have a beer when you get back.”
This is what people mean when they say Japanese women take care of their men.
3. Japanese people actually worry—a lot—about how they look—-clothes, shoes, hair, bodies. Everybody’s not all depilating their arm hair for nothing. And there’s not too many fashion-conscious people walking around Tokyo in shorts and flip-flops, other than gaijin, of course. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Japanese person over the age of 30 wear only a t-shirt in public. Now, there may be something a bit “‘hood rich” about placing so much value on appearance versus substance, but hey, welcome to Asia. Anyway, being thin is hugely important, and people aren’t afraid to call out their buddies or their eight-year old cousin Yuki for being two pounds overweight. Back to the gym, you little slouch.
By contrast, visiting my former country of America is like an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Everybody talks about weight-loss, and everywhere you look there are magazines and TV shows describing how to forage for mustard greens or eat like a Paleolithic dude, as if that were something one would aspire to. But then you go to someone’s house and they’re all, Want some tuna casserole? Here, have a pound. Maybe some hummus and pita bread? No? Celery and Cheese Whiz? At least let me get you a Diet Coke. From this, I gather that Americans love to talk about dieting, but what they actually eat…seriously, from a Japanese perspective, y’all people are crazy.
4. Japanese folks still cook. Sure, there are some fad diets in Japan, but nothing like the massive industry that’s consumed the U.S. Generally speaking, people here eat real food. Even a Microwave dinner at the Japanese 7-11 is more homemade than most of the food Americans serve at home. Please do not forward this article to my mother.
Fortunately for you, Ken Seeroi has codified a simple process by which you can determine whether or not you’re preparing “real food.” Ready? Here it is: go into your kitchen and make dinner. If the first things you reach for are a knife and cutting board, you’re making actual food. On the other hand, if you pull out a box, jar, or something from the freezer, then that ain’t it. All that stuff labeled “Low-Fat” and “Low-Calorie” is not helping you fit into your stretch pants.
Classic Japanese Cuisine
Never one to leave brothers and sisters hanging, Chef Seeroi has written a complex and award-winning recipe for making authentic Japanese food:
Step 1: Cut up vegetables and meat or fish or something
Step 2: Put them in a pan with broth, cooking sake, and any other thing you want
Step 3: Turn on the fire and stir everything around a while
And presto, that describes about 80 percent of Japanese food. While it might be a bit challenging at first, I’m pretty sure you’ll eventually get the hang of it.
5. They just don’t eat. Back at the office, I noticed that Skeletor never had lunch. I’ve never seen anything pass his lips other than green tea. And as though by some magic coincidence, Skeletor just happens to be one of the two thinnest men I’ve ever seen. He also looks perpetually miserable, but no doubt that’s unrelated. So I asked him, “Do you eat breakfast?”
“Sure,” he said.
“But not lunch?
“No,” he said, a little sullenly.
“You get here at what? like 7:30, right?” I said with some excitement, possibly because I’d just eaten a big lunch, “and you don’t go home until what time?
“Usually around eight or nine.
“Jeez, that’s like ten hours or something. Do you eat dinner?
“Sure,” he said, as though it were obvious.
“I can’t go without lunch,” said Skeletor Jr., joining in. He looks just like Skeletor, except half a foot shorter. He’s the other skinniest man I’ve ever seen.
“But you also told me you don’t eat breakfast,” I pointed out.
“Well, true,” he admitted.
It’s interesting to contrast them with The Butt, who’s constantly grazing on healthy American snacks like dried cranberries, baby carrots, handfuls of almonds, pieces of dark chocolate, granola bars, and plenty of water. I just don’t understand why white people eat raw carrots. They don’t even taste good. Maybe it helps their eyes or something.
“I make sure to drink at least eight glasses of water a day,” said The Butt. Now, that’s something else about white people—-they’re always drinking gallons of water. I wonder why that is? Japanese folks don’t seem to worry about it. But then they don’t have to wash down all those carrots, I suppose. And standing—-did I mention the standing?
“I like to work standing up,” she said, looking down on me from her keyboard, which was propped on top of a cardboard box. “It’s healthier.
“But Japanese people sit all day,” I noted, “and they all live to be like 90.
“Well, it’s still healthier,” she said.
Ms. WhoAreYouAgain never said that. But then, she never said anything, seeming to possess the vocal range of your average giraffe. That might be one reasons I don’t know her name. She also never stood up. I mean, ever. She was in perpetual Eco-friendly energy-conservation mode, sitting there staring at her screen every morning when I got in, and still sitting and staring when I left at night. At lunchtime, she’d pull a small bento box from her desk drawer and begin quietly eating. She never drank water, or tea, or anything. I’m pretty sure she just absorbed moisture from the air, like a cactus.
So there it is. Another non-mystery, solved. Sure, Japanese people are conscientious about what they eat, and maybe take in fewer carbs and more real food, but mostly, they just eat way freaking less.
And Then a Moment of Shock
I filed this simple observation away until one day, when Ms. WhoAreYouAgain did something that blew my mind. At exactly 10 a.m., she took from her desk drawer a small blueberry pastry and began nibbling on it. I was like, What the eff? My entire world view was shattered. What’s next—-she’s gonna sit on a yoga ball and slug back a bottle of water?
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat a snack,” I said gently.
Then Ms. WhoAreYouAgain looked down, and I feared I’d offended her. Japanese folks are so moody like that. Fortunately, Skeletor Jr. rescued the situation. “She’s pregnant,” he blurted out.
“Oh,” I said. Nice save. “Congratulations.”
Ms. WhoAreYouAgain silently wrapped up the remaining half of her tiny pastry and returned it to her desk drawer, then went back to staring. I thought for a moment that I might try to liven things up a bit by inviting everyone out for pizza, as sort of a team-building kind of thing, but then thought better of it. Well, I really gotta go on a diet anyway. I mean, now that I’ve uncovered the ancient Japanese secret to living a long and happy life.