Why are Japanese so Skinny?

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.

85 Replies to “Why are Japanese so Skinny?”

  1. “I’m pretty sure she just absorbed moisture from the air, like a cactus.” Omg, I was drinking coffee when I read that and almost choked. That’s waaaaay too funny! I have to agree with everything you said. On my trips to Europe and Japan, I rarely saw overweight, slovenly-dressed people. Then I came home and rarely saw healthy, well-dressed people! I especially hate seeing individuals out in public wearing flip flops or sweat pants. I’m all for enacting a law that would ban flip-flops in public, unless you’re at the beach! Cooking real food – what a novel concept to most North Americans. I don’t think our “time-crunched”, instant-gratification society is ready for such a radical idea, Ken.

    1. The crazy thing about cooking—and I have to remind myself of this since I like to eat out a lot—is that it takes a really small amount of time and effort. I mean, how long does it take to chop up a carrot, right? Cooking, or the lack thereof, is mostly habit, I think.

      1. I agree. Cooking doesn’t take much time at all. But North Americans tend to be lazy and would rather save the few minutes it takes to cook and spend it watching TV or something. I know far too many people like that. Probably ties into the “wanting something for nothing” attitude that seems pervasive here too.

    2. Pali I’d agree with you 100% if I didn’t live in San Diego, CA where it’s basically perfect weather everyday. Flip flops are practically part of our dress code. Now as far as the sweat pants I’ll take it one further. American people’s confusing need to take their pajamas out for a daily venture. Maybe other cultures manage to sleep in their undergarments eliminating the need to bless the public with their favorite pair of jammies and unkempt bed head amalgamation of hair. Seeing someone dressed like this in Japan, even if you manage to stay at someone’s home or a ryokan, is akin to seeing a unicorn or bigfoot. I believe if a Japanese person sets one foot outside their home without being properly dressed and hair combed they burst into flames, never to be heard from again. A large amount of the American populous could benefit from this habit of not rolling out of bed and heading our the door. Yoga pants are another mystery. But that could lead to someone getting offended. Like Chris Farley in Tommy Boy singing “fat man in a little coat”.

      1. Okay, I can see why flip flops might be required in San Diego, but I still think they are hideous. 🙂

        1. Flip-flops are cute, particularly on attractive girls…they’re pretty common in Taipei and aren’t regarded as downmarket…actually quite a refreshing change from the at-times distant and depressed people of Japan.

  2. Ken you are the best. This mostly discribes why are American son fat; what’s your take to this? Be happy and a little overweight or be really miserable and looks like a Victoria secrets model?

    1. Okay, now there’s a good question. And I have a pretty clear answer after trying a calorie-restricted diet for a couple of months. I may write a full-on article about this, but bottom-line is 1. I lost a lot of weight and 2. I had that same, sad expression that Japanese people have, all the time. Somehow I don’t think thin and miserable is a really winning combination.

  3. Hey Seeroi, you forgot the most obvious reason: health risks. You’ve been living there for a while now, you should know that the Japanese are not obsessed with eating healthy and being thin because of vanity (at least most are not). Japanese (and Asians in general) have a way higher chance of developing weight-related illnesses at the same BMI than other ethnic groups. They are prone to, and get hit way harder by diseases like Type-2 Diabetes, Hypertension, Cardio-Vascular Diseases and all sorts of Gastro-Intestinal Diseases. Compared to other ethniciities, like Caucasians or Hispanics, if you are an Asian, even being a little overweight doubles or sometimes triples the risks for weight-related problems and illnesses. Here’s a Harvard study on the subject: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/ethnic-differences-in-bmi-and-disease-risk/
    Screw them racist diseases, huh? This is also one of the main reasons they shamelessly call you out for “being fat”, even if it’s only a few extra kgs: they are worried about you! This is my story and I’m sticking to it. At least it’s way better than being called out for simply being an ugly lard-silo….

    The other reasons I think is geography/diet and lifestyle. Being an island nation in Asia, their staple foods are fish, seafood, rice and vegetables. As you said, they don’t really eat processed foods. Pastries, pasta, soft drinks and snacks like potato chips are all imported ideas from western influence. They very much prefer freshly cooked stuff. So fresh, they even eat it raw (Sushi anyone?). Hell, some restaurants even make you cook your own food at the table. It saves on kitchen staff I guess. Fine, but don’t expect a tip you lazy bums! No, wait, Japanese don’t even tip…. Huh, there must be something to it then after all 😀 Also, bento lunches are a great thing. I mean, having full-course, home-cooked lunches made of fresh ingredients and taking them to work and school is not something I’ve seen much outside Japan. You can even get a bento at most konbinis and shops all around. Hell, there are hot food-in-a-can in vending machines everywhere, that’s certainly something I never seen anywhere else. Not that cup-ramen or canned tea is all that healthy, but at least it’s not Doritos and Mountain Dew, right?

    As for lifestyle, the Japanese live on a schedule. As much I could gather, they are always busy, either working or going somewhere. And they walk or bike around a lot and take the trains instead of having a car. They are also big on community events like fairs, festivals and all sorts of genki stuff. They also do it harder-better-faster-stronger than westerners, when they party or festival, they do it like they friggin mean it, it’s a “work hard, play hard” culture I guess. They are way more “active” in their everyday lives than most of North America for example.

    The biggest reason I can think of is still their society. I mean that huge American weight-loss fad and the reason the weight-loss industry got so big is because 99% of what they sell plain doesn’t work. They DON’T want people to lose weight, they want them to stay fat so they can sell them more and more “weight-loss” sh!t that doesn’t work. And the government assists to this beautifully. They want their populace to stay fat and sick so the healthcare and weight-loss industry can get rich off them. On the other hand, as far I can tell, the Japanese government (as riddled with corruption and BS as it is) actually cares for it’s people, and their health-care system actually works FOR the them and not looking to get rich of their artificially sustained misery. No wonder why Japan has the highest life-expectancy in the entire world, while the US for example is down there with many third world countries….

    1. Great observations, Playbahnosh. I totally agree on the health perspective. I also think that Americans are fatter now, at least partly, because fat in foods is replaced by sugar. All that started in the 80s when people wanted to look like Jane Fonda in a video, even though Jane Fonda couldn’t even do it. You are also right about the schedule. Japanese stick to a schedule, including eating, and rarely snack. The office I worked in had an afternoon tea ritual, which always included some sweets, but again, it was scheduled. Another thing, beyond the big cities, people walk instead of drive cars like Americans. The towns are built in a centralized way, like American towns used to be, and so its not hard to walk almost everywhere. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in Japan drinking a diet Coke.

      1. Thank you Jen! ^_^
        If I sounded extremely jealous of the Japanese, it’s because I actually am. Living here in Hungary is nightmare, even compared to that disaster-ridden, backwards island full of obsessed xenophobes 😀
        As for obesity in the US, it’s not the sugar, it’s STARCH. You see, sugars like glucose, fructose and lactose are easily converted to energy by the body. But starch being a crystalline polysaccharide is hard to digest and draw any energy from. It passes undigested and gets converted into fat by bacteria in the colon. This is what most processed foods are full of, like High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), Maltodextrin and many other modified starches. Starch is used in almost every processed food as thickeners and stabilizers, they are in snacks, chocolates, soft drinks, pastries, every flavored or colored foodstuff, etc. Not to mention the natural sources of huge amounts of starch, like wheats (wheat, barley, rice, granola, etc) and root vegetables (potato). Eating starch (especially the good kinds, like resistant starch) is actually beneficial to the body, but eating it in the horrendous quantities many western countries do is VERY unhealthy.

        The other thing is paranoid fear of “fat”. There is this mass hysteria of being “non-fat” everything, and that’s the other huge factor in obesity. It’s a very damaging myth! Having fat in the food does NOT directly translate into gaining fat on your body. It’s quite the opposite in fact! Many types of fats (like high saturated fat HSF) not only does not cause obesity, but actually makes you LOSE weight. Many vitamins and other components required by the body are fat-soluble so they require the presence of the right kind of fats to be of any use to you, otherwise they just wash out of your body. This fear of having fat in the food is very detrimental to people’s health. Here is a study about the effects of high-fat no-starch diet on sick people: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14601690
        Imagine what the same diet can do for people who are not already sick.

        Coincidentally, guess what the main components of the Japanese diet are. The rice contains the right amount of starches beneficial to the body, and the tons of side-dishes with meat, fish and seafood are high in fats and amino-acids (oils), and the vegetables contain a ton of fibre. They eat almost no processed sh!t (so no HFCS and other starchy crap) and prefer green tea and cooked or raw food made of fresh ingredients. In a way, their entire nation is on a constant high-fat low-starch diet.

        1. Whew, lots to think about there. I certainly agree that starch, and processed foods, are major problems that the Japanese diet generally avoids. Real food, now there’s a concept.

        2. Don’t for get the delicious Japanese PORK ! Takatsu, and KOBE Beef. The Japanese diet is good over all, But in Italy there are not allot of over weight Italians either ! And they eat Pasta almost every day, as Asians eat Rice ! But I do agree, Humanity needs to get back to basics, REAL FOOD>

          1. Yeah, that’s certainly the key component. Real food. Anything that comes in a box, can, or jar doesn’t qualify. Which rules out about 90 percent of the typical American supermarket. Well, at least it makes shopping faster, and you can use that time for cooking.

        3. True. French and Italian too (+ heavy cheese, wine, baguette and pasta every day!), all on walks&bikes, three meals per day, no sneaks, no processed food, only REAL FOOD. Also, sweets after meals are not so common – if you eat bread or pasta or rice in meal, you will avoid desserts.

    2. Health risks is definitely one of the bigger points and the reason why Japanese people have to stay slim. Being of Japanese ancestry myself, I’ve learned this the hard way after having an emergency operation to remove my gallbladder and staying in the hospital for a week. (Since then, it kind of bothers me when people say Japanese people are “too skinny”.)

  4. I always assumed that japanese we’re thin because they work themselves to death, you know? Interesting article ken.

    1. Well, the two certainly seem related. If you’re not eating, I guess you gotta have something else to do, so work fills that void nicely.

  5. Another reason Japanese are so skinny, or at least not fat, is you just can’t buy clothes that fit when you’re larger. It’s a real pain in the butt, I’m a normal size European, but in Japanese that means L size, and sometimes No Way size. Which is rather depressing.

    1. You know, here’s the funny thing. When I was in high school in the U.S., I wore jeans with a 32 waist and XL T-shirts. Now, I’m not gonna lie, I’m not as skinny as I was then, by a long shot. But when I go back now—I buy jeans that are 31 waist, and T-shirts that are size M. Anything else is just huge.

      So it’s kind of like, Careful what you wish for. They just keep making things bigger and bigger in the U.S., and changing the labels. At least in Japan, you know when you’re getting fat.

  6. I blame intestinal parasites from eating all that raw food, Really what other country requires the use of butthole stickers to enroll your kids in school.

    1. Okay, I had to google for that one. Turns out, yep, “One of the more unpleasant experiences is the pinworm test which is done at home . . .

      Testing involves placing special adhesive tape on the a student’s anus on two consecutive days . . .”


      So I learned something new and interesting about Japanese school life. Somehow it doesn’t seem strange in the least either.

      I guess that’s one way to lose weight.

    2. I know this is an old comment but I’d like to point out the US isn’t exempt from intestinal parasites. If you’ve worked with or been around children and/or sand, including play sand, you’ve most likely picked up a butt worm or thousand. At least in Japan they don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

  7. Could also explain some of the high level of “whiskey tango foxtrot” found in Japanese society.

    God knows I’d probably be a wee bit weirder after experiencing that in childhood.

      1. Actually, to their credit, they don’t require the test after the onset of secondary sexual characteristics.

        RiiiiiiiiiiiP! Eeeyyaaauuugghhhhh!

  8. OK, now I read past the title, and it actually says what I say in my previous comment. So… good that we are on the same page.
    But I still HATE YOU!!!11!

  9. On a serious note though…My theory for why americans have become so huge is as follows>

    In america, cows and other food animals are fed (legally) with lotsa hormones and steroids to create as much flesh as possible. This works fine, however, the animals cannot take up all the growth “medicine” so a lot of it just comes out as poop. And the poop is used as fertilizer for growing crops and veggies and fruit. It is proven that large amounts of the growth stuff fed to animals can be traced in vegetables etc.
    Anyway, americans eat both the animal and the plants, and get a full dose of growth hormone.
    This affects them on a genetic level and turns them into warmongering balloons.
    Just a theory.
    PS. I HATE YOU!! Why don’t you write more often????????

  10. Ken,

    OMG, I’ve been impersonated!!! Someone else wrote these last three comments, it wasn’t me. Sort of weird to be impersonated on a blog. Guess that person doesn’t have any identity worth mentioning. In a strange way, I started to feel sort of flattered that he’d go to the trouble of pretending to be me, but then I realized that one of me is enough for this world and that he wasn’t nearly as erudite or sophisticated as the one and only BUDMAN (cough cough…). I should probably quote Hamlet here, “but alas, poor Yorik… I don’t want to know him!”

    1. Well, now I’m glad I didn’t waste too much time on a reply.

      And I guess that’s the internet. Whatever. Back to bidness.

  11. I have to think available diet plays a large role in our relative weight/size differences. I remember seeing a really special museum exhibit on ancient Japanese culture at the local museum when I was in middle school and noticing most of the samurai armor would’ve fit me snug when I was only 12. Their diets were very limited once upon a time and they were smaller on average than today.
    The average Japanese diet has expanded since then and so have they on average, while in America food companies roll out ever more ludicrously unhealthy “meals” to top their competition in the food porn wars.
    Off the top of my head Whole Foods and Aldi are the only stores I know that actively advertise quality or organic foods as the norm. Funny, when my grandparents were my age they didn’t have to call food organic, everything already was. Now food needs a special label and certification just to let you know it’s the rare exception that isn’t full of hormones, antibiotics, fillers, additives, preservatives, and all those other sketchy -ives. Our american diets are limited now in a different way and were all larger, on average, as a result.

    1. No doubt that people in the past were malnourished. Americans in the Dustbowl era weren’t looking too portly either. But I think culture plays an even bigger part than the available food choices. Japanese supermarkets, restaurants, and convenience stores contain a full range of processed and junk foods. And fried stuff—holy smokes. They’ve perfected the art of frying just everything you could imagine. As for organic, please. The first time you pull worms out of your salad will be the last time you make that choice. I wish I was making this up. Most of the farms here use a heavy dose of kill-everything, and I’m (now) completely okay with it.

      So it’s not the food. It’s the choices. We’ve got Dominoes here too, but I doubt the average Japanese family eats pizza more than once or twice a year. They just choose to consume other stuff. Nobody’s forcing American’s to eat steak, mashed potatoes and gravy. Nobody makes you eat Cheerios instead of fish for breakfast. Except for, well okay, maybe my mother. So it’s those choices, along with the choice of how much to eat, that makes the difference.

      As much as we’d like to blame everybody else for making us fat, in the end, it’s really our own responsibility. Except for beer, which clearly is beyond anyone’s control. The blame there obviously lies with the folks at the Kirin brewery.

      1. Ahh alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems 🙂 a little cardio never hurt anybody, but restaurants and fast food chains have gone well it off their way to increase proportion sizes and hide not only calories, but even ingredients from the public. Hindus in the US not to long ago were told that McDonalds fries contained animal product, much to their annoyance. Lack of information and misinformation has played a large role in american obesity, as well as bad consumer choices. When choices are clear it’s easier to choose.You see more and more produce at grocery stores being labeled as local produce and

        1. ..it consistently sells out first, while most people I know stopped going to McDonalds after Supersize Me came out, to the extent that McD’s is currently launching a PR campaign to reassure people their beef doesn’t contain “pink slime” lol

  12. For some reason, that made me really want to forward this to your mother… 😛

    I wish my diet was healthy.

    Also, how the hell can people make fun of you for speaking their language?

    If I made fun of foreigners for speaking English….

    ^ I feel I’d get arrested

    1. “how the hell can people make fun of you for speaking their language?”

      Ah, yet another mystery of the Far East.

      In the U.S., it seems that not speaking English is an indication you’re not trying to fit in. Whereas in Japan, hey, nobody wants you to fit in. You’re a different “race,” so stick to your own water fountain and stop trying to be like us. As long as you speak English and dance a little soft-shoe, we love you. Just don’t get too uppity.

  13. Every time I visit Japan, I eat 6 times a day, including desserts, ramen, doria and domburi. And then I come home significantly thinner. They put something in their food!

  14. …eco friendly mode phrase is too funny!, so she never say Good morning or like that?
    When I was there I saw that the supermarkets have a very small snacks and similar section; that s is very important for the kids and adult kids; plus that normally their snacks are not so processed and are not based in plain white sugar.

    Most commenters in this are from US, Aussie land or couple of Euro countries, so may be what I m saying now is not unfamiliar; the thing is there in Japan, ALL the westerns that I saw were tall, super tall; shorter was around 1.82, but most were between 1.95-2 mts!. Even the women are super tall; is it NOT possible to be a super tall woman an have a nice silhouette so they became fatties…sorry; or super tall and skinny…sorry again. These sound racist but it s a fact; if you are a big MF and eat wrong you ll be even more big and fat; then with all kind of diseases.
    So I think that what we eat is important but the gens are the most important thing; I live in a poor country, so the diet here is not so good (but not so bad like in US) hence great % eat too much cheapo pasta, white refined bread, etc BUT the new generations are way TALLER (no matter if the parents are short or mid sized) and with great bodies than previous generations.
    They do not make exercises or sports; they eat plain bad and too much in most cases BUT they really have great bodies…also they all have hands and feet very large when they are kids…I have been noticed that factor from long time ago in several countries; most with genes from Europa and Africa.
    So gens+chemicals in the food (post WWII food)+the pill (since the 60s)+unknown factors)= taller+larger extremities+too much fat in relation to muscles; less wise?
    Yes, sound too much racist; but try to read it without that perspective

  15. Hi Ken,

    First of all, I have to tell you that I’ve been following your blog for some years and I love it! Wish you would write more often.This is my first comment ever and I feel like I have to tell you that I disagree with you.It is a funny story but not entirely true.
    I have been here for over 15 years myself and I have seen the Japanese transform into short chubby Michelin characters over the years.
    I see lots of kids,middle aged men and women who are plain fat.The skinny ones you are talking about are the teens——mid 20 single types but anything above that and/or married is overweight or close to fat.

    The Japanese used to be skinny but with Costco popping up in every corner in Japan you see more fat people.
    In my opinion 30-40% of Japanese are chubby and the way it goes that will only go up.They are not as big as we westerners are but then again they are also not as tall as we are.
    Just my 2 cents.

    Keep them coming mate!

    1. Yeah, I wish I’d write more often too. Maybe someday when I retire. Nah, I’ll probably just spend my days drinking shochu and raking leaves in the parks like all the other old men. Actually, that sounds pretty good.

      You’re right about the effects of age, and it’s something I omitted from the original article just to save space. (I try not to kill people by writing a 6000-word blog post.) I think one reason Japanese people are skinnier than Westerners is simply that they delay getting fatter until later in life. Lately, it seems like kids in the U.S. are fattened up by the time they’re 5 years old. Whereas Japanese kids (partly through malnutrition and poverty) don’t eat as much. Here are some typical questions and answers from my time as an elementary school teacher:

      “Takeshi, what did you have for breakfast?


      “Cream and sugar?

      “No Ken, just black.

      “It’s Seeroi-sensei, and tomorrow, ask your mom for a bowl of rice.

      “Will do, Ken.

      “Setsuko, what’s your dream for the future?

      “My dream?

      “Yeah, you know, like do you want to be an astronaut, or a doctor, or win a gold medal?

      “My dream…well, I want to eat until I’m full.

      “Yeah, that’s a good dream too, I suppose.”

      No telling how much longer this will last however. Once CostCo got here and people started buying six gallons of orange juice and four-pound blocks of cheese, it was only a matter of time before folks started chubbing up. Thank God for the Western influence, saving Japan.

  16. Hi Ken,
    I found this blog a few days ago and have spent hours reading your stuff. It’s fantastic. You are a talented writer and a keen observer of all things Japan. I lived in Tokyo for nine years (80s and 90s) and Okinawa for six (00s). I look forward to more.

    1. Thanks for the compliment and for having the coolest name ever. Tokyo to Okinawa, huh? Man, that’s like two different countries. It’s crazy that they’re both called Japan.

      1. Hi Ken,

        Okinawans like to think of themselves as different (Ryukyu Empire and all that.)

        Chuck Wow is not my real name. It is a Thai word เชย ว้าว that means “fly a kite,” but is also a cheeky euphemism for masturbation. (Imagine pulling on the string of a kite.) It’s cute in a freshman sort of way. I moved to Thailand in 2006 and have been here since. I also long for the good old days. (In Japan that was 1987, in Thailand that was 2001)


        1. Next you’ll tell me that Kansai people think of themselves as different from the rest of Japan, as do people from Hokkaido, or that people in Tokyo believe themselves to be different breeds of Edo-ko depending upon the neighborhood they were born in. Stop it, Chuck Wow, you’re destroying my vision of Japan as a homogeneous nation.

          So you live in Thailand now? I’ve been there once, and it was pretty excellent. Kind of made me wonder why I moved to Japan, actually.

          1. Wow Chuck Wow hehe thanks for explaining what that means.

            I have been to Thailand and hope to visit Japan this year!! Now you guys are making me think Thailand is better. I’ve heard so many great things about Japan though too so can’t wait to go. But I’ve heard also that’s its super expensive. Wy is that?

            1. Honestly, no idea. It’s only expensive if you’re not used to going on vacation. And with the current dollar to yen valuation, it’s a downright bargain.

              It’d be good to hear your assessment after you’ve been to both places.

          2. I think Japan’s reputation for being super expensive is because, for a time in the mid-1980s, it really was for visitors from other countries.

            With the bursting of the bubble economy in the 1990s, Japan’s prices (and salaries) went into a protracted deep-freeze. Many things cost much the same today as they did 25 years ago. People get paid much the same.

            But now the yen is weaker, plus salaries in many other countries have increased markedly, making Japan much more affordable today for foreign visitors.

  17. Haven’t read through all the comments yet.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that with the public transportation in most metro areas, people walk a whole heck of a lot more than they do in most of the US. That alone is going to help quite a bit.

    1. It wouldn’t surprise me if the average Japanese person walked three miles a day. Just crossing Shinjuku Station is a workout in itself.

      On the other hand, I’ve been reading a bit lately about the challenges of using exercise for weight loss. Miles of walking to burn off a Big Mac meal? 9.5. And once Japanese folks arrive at the office, they’re often chained to the desk for 12 hours or more, expending no more energy than it takes to answer a phone. It’s a lot more effective if you simply don’t eat that Big Mac—or anything—in the first place. Although granted, not so fun.

      1. That x number of miles to burn off y usually doesn’t take into account that you’re also burning calories just by being alive. So long as you can get yourself into an overall deficit you’re going to loose weight in one form or another.

        I noticed quite a few of my friends who went over while I was also there had lost weight despite having the same terrible (mostly fast food) diet. When I moved over myself I actually lost quite a bit of muscle mass at first just because the commute from work was something I hadn’t thought to account for, despite the fact that my diet and routine was about the same for the first few months.

        1. I’m sure I lost some muscle, and certainly gained weight, after moving here. In the U.S., I ate what I naively thought was a “Japanese” diet: mostly rice, fish, and vegetables, and I did that for years, in addition working out daily. Then I moved to Japan and was too tired after running for trains and teaching English to do any proper exercise. I also started eating more meals from restaurants and convenience stores, like a lot of folks in Tokyo. You can’t really complain about being surrounded by delicious food, but sometimes I still do.

      2. I used to think that Japanese people only eat healthy food. Was really surprised by all the junk food, and the amount of people eating Mac or KFC. And seriously, where did the Japanese get the idea that, you have to eat KFC chicken on Christmas?

  18. Whilst I agree with all you said (ps just discovered this blog and it’s cracking me up – only been here for 2 years but I can relate to sooo much of what you say) – the sad reality is that the Japanese will chub up like the rest of the Western world. It’s just taken a bit longer for them to succumb to the invasion of the convenient, high carb, high sugar diet that USA has exported to the rest of the developed world.
    For example, French people are famous for being thin, right? And for eating good food, right ? Wrong! Guess which country is the highest grossing for McDonald’s outside of USA? Yup – France! Obesity is rising fast too. My mum lives in France and I can tell you that there ain’t no slim chic types around there – it’s not a rich suburb of Paris but a rural area – no one has a lot of money … so they eat a lot of cheap fast food.
    I queue up in Starbucks every day to buy my espresso with a dash of milk and I see all the Japanese folk buying drinks that seem more like desserts – topped with whipped cream, caramel sauce and sprinkles .. and you know I reckon that they will end up going the same way as everyone else around the world. They just resisted for a lot longer …

    1. Yes, sadly that seeems to be happening. There’s a lot of concern about the increase in “metabolic syndrome” among the Japanese, which is the medical term for “gettin’ fat.” The proliferation of Starbucks, McDonald’s, and KFC isn’t doing anyone any favors. That’s why I stick to black coffee.

  19. My colleagues eat Cup Noodle at every lunch. I know because I can hear seven of them all slurping away at the same time. Those styrofoam cups resonate perfectly.

    1. They’re scientifically designed for maximum slurp-noise dispersment. Who says the Japanese have lost their technological edge?

  20. “I’ll let you have a beer when you get back.”

    Whoa. Stop right there! Your woman LETS you have a beer? Damn…

  21. It was an interesting read, I think the most important is that they don’t eat that much. I think westerners would stay fat on Japanese diet,simply because of the amount of food they are used to. I am just having my vacation in Japan, and I know that I need to stick to the same diet as at home, if I do not want to go home with extra weight. I don’t agree with the fashion part though. There are people who care about there looks, there is the salary man, those who screw up badly and the general population. Maybe it is oversimplification, but it does not look like to me if they were so advanced in this regard. And if they were it is an interesting contrast that how many people spit on the street, or that some guys don’t really need a tissue to blow their nose. I was surprised when someone did this in middle of namba who looked like one of the not so well dressed Japanese(it was at the side if the road but come on ). And if you go to doubutsuenmae(osaka still,) it is just the general pop and the underclass without the fashion and shine of the inner city.

    1. Even fashion aside, I’d say the Japanese tend to dress more like adults. Something started happening in America years ago, where it gradually became all right for grown men and women to dress (and behave) like children. Now I see 50 year-old men walking around in shorts and t-shirts, wearing Crocs and baseball caps. Sorry, but ya look like a five year-old. There’s less of that here, for which I thank God every day.

  22. Seeroi -san

    Big fan, love the website.

    So I just got back from my first trip to Japan, and have developed this outlandish and quite possibly nonsensical theory about why people are so slender.

    Sure, there’s the genetics thing, the real nutritious food thing, the lower calories thing. But then there is also the metabolic advantage of living in a country that is always on. Like, i’m pretty sure I lost a few pounds just walking through Shinjuku at night. The flashing lights, the arcades, the almost-porn anime plastered everywhere. It gets your heart racing. And then you chase that with immediately available coffee, high stress levels, 19 hour-whatever days…well, it just seems like it’d be hard to be fat.

    People do seem to move a lot more than in the west though, so that’s certainly a more plausible argument. I do think Japan is somewhat doomed though when it comes to future obesity though. Convenient stores are beyond convenient – all too often I found myself eating some cake thing from Family Mart and my brain had just completely skipped the entering and buying phases. It was like a nervous twitch. But i’m guessing the novelty of all that wears off, right?

    My favourite thing is that you can eat like absolute garbage or eat really healthily. I did both, simultaneously. Also, i’m not a huge drinker in my day to day life, but I could totally picture a life of alcoholism in Japan. The 100 Yen Whiskey Highball thing had me seduced.

  23. My friend moved to Japan and the next time i saw him he was in amazing shape. He explained to us that because he cycled to work and had to walk through the infinitely long train stations that seem to be everywhere he had gotten more than enough exercise to be both an alcoholic and fit. Something i’m rather looking forward to myself.
    Unless the Japanese start mainstreaming Segways. In which case we’re all screwed because who wouldn’t opt for a quite stroll through Namba on something motorised.

    1. Thanks, Jezy. Poptarts, man I haven’t seen one of those in years. Still, I ate enough in my childhood that I’m sure my body is still ten percent strawberry filling.

  24. When we visited Japan last spring I knew we’d be giant, fat gaijin, but we were determined to at least be well dressed giant, fat gaijin. No jeans, no shorts, no gym shoes. It’s really the least we can do for ourselves and the rest of the US. Represent, y’all.

    1. See, now that’s the right attitude. Well, at least fifty percent of it. I’m not sure it’s right to view yourselves as “giant, fat gaijin”—thus implying that “Japanese” people never embody any of those three qualities—but fair enough, at least you’re well-dressed.

      No need to revert back once you go home, either. Just saying.

  25. Id also like to mention that Asian body tend to be petit compared to the others in the rest of the world. I’m an average Asian male, but my body frame tends to be a lot narrower and smaller compared to someone who is nonasian. Maybe that’s why the Japanese tend to look skinner??.

  26. so what do you do for a living in Japan? I thought you were a teacher, but it sounds like you are an office worker.

  27. Late comment to this post, but you should write something about Japanese and constipation due to the severe lack of fiber in their diet. The amount of vegetables you get at a restaurant is about the size of a pinky toe, and it’s usually pickled. Excluding deep fried tempura veggies, your best option is the raw cabbage that comes with your tonkatsu!

    1. We must not be eating at the same places, because I don’t see that at all. Every izakaya has salads and vegetable dishes, and many standard Japanese foods are fiber-rich: gobo, daikon, eggplant, kanpyo, cucumber, spinach, fuki, nanohana, okra, renkon, seaweed, bok choy, konnyaku, bamboo, pumpkin, edamame…the list goes on. I mean, what are you eating? I can’t imagine anything that would cause constipation, unless you’re on a diet of meat and white rice, in which case you might want to lay off that Yoshinoya.

  28. Japanese rice is polished, meaning it has zero vitamins or anythig, really, the only thing it has are carbs and whatever you put on it. It’s dieters death. Just like tempura sushi roll.

    1. I dunno—water’s got zero vitamins, and people seem pretty jazzed about the stuff.

      Somehow I don’t think rice is the problem. If you look at the cultures that regularly eat it, most of them aren’t too porky. Tempura sushi roll—yeah, now you’re getting warm. That and cookies, chicken pot pies, hot dogs, pizza, nachos, soda, ice cream…

  29. Aha! And all this time I felt guilty about not wanting the huge bowls of rice for every meal that I’d seen in all the recipie displays and what they served at the university cafeteria. I’ve discovered the secret–not everyone eats like all the recipie books have fooled me into believing! Also, while the Japanese might not be “that thin”, I’m amazed they they’re all collectively thin. I was also around university students mostly so of course they were all thin. I did notice a lot of the older business men were pudgier, but damn I barely saw any chubby girls. Maybe some older women were chubby, but I swear the girls all tried ten times harder to be thin. Makes sense when all the cute clothes only come in one damn free size! Which I’m happy to say I almost fit. If only I’d been a few inches smaller in the waist, all those clothes could’ve worked. Nonetheless, some of the thinnest people I’ve ever seen in my life were in Japan. I saw this one girl who was not only tall (5′ 7″ ish which seems tall to me) but she was somehow curvy yet stick thin at the same time. Her waist must have been like 15″ and her hips must’ve been like 23-25″. Maybe that’s slightly exaggerating but holy shit it was definitely an uncommon sight. I’m sure even the people on the street were surprised!

  30. I’m here visiting Hawaii and watching lots of Japanese tourists to see if there is a “secret” to why they are so much thinner than we Americans. Yes, they are obviously used to walking. A LOT. They don’t spend as much time eating as we do. It’s more of a necessity to them, eat when hungry or when it’s time. Here, we eat all the time. Work, TV, games, company, all day and all night. They definitely stick to healthier foods. A candy bar or hamburger is definitely more of a treat to them than to us. They seem to be overall interested in many other things, Americans are food obsessed. We even have travel shows on TV that are all about traveling to eat new things! They can get away with carbs and a bit of sugar in their sauces because that’s ALL the added sugar and carbs they eat. As for the flip-flops, I hate them too, have seen a few tourists from Japan here in them, but they seem to spend more time on what they will wear, and grooming, and we spend ours on eating.

    1. I’m sure your observations are correct, however I must say that we’re at least as food obsessed in Japan. The travel-somewhere-to-eat-stuff show is a mainstay of Japanese television, running virtually 24 hours a day. It’s just that what we eat tends to be served on a plate designed for a three year-old, plus it’s not a hot-dog stuffed inside a hamburger crammed inside a fried chicken.

  31. Ken, hopefully you still check this blog thread, I find your prose quite entertaining, most certainly concerning your observations of an American living in Japan. I have always had a cursory interest in Japan’s culture, particularly when it came to all those wacky Japanese tv shows that flooded our markets in the late 90’s and 2000’s.

    Clearly for a society to embrace the types of humor that surfaces in these little vignettes of Japanese humor there must be some twisted thinking going on in the background. I have considered visiting Japan since my early retirement primarily to see this type of social behavior in person.

    I have many questions and few answers to help me with this decision, I suppose the first one is why do the younger women of Japan seem so eager to submit themselves to the types of sexual humor that seems to be rampant in their society? Are women considered a second class citizen? Is it acceptable for them to be treated as sexual fodder in the mainstream of their society?

    I may as well ask as well about how the average male is also projected to be a bit of a clumsy oaf and as such subject to such extreme acts that would have the average American hiring a bunch of lawyers to bring suit against the networks promoting these crazy stunts.

    The country really seems to offer a lot in cultural knowledge and the unique behaviors of Japanese society. I truly like reading your comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *