Big in Japan? Fat chance for nation's young women, obsessed with being skinny

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 7, 2010

TOKYO -- 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.

"I am quite fat, actually," said Michie Takagi, a 70-year-old grandmother and retired clothing store executive. She has a body mass index (BMI) of 19.9, which is at the thin end of normal. While the average American woman has gained about 25 pounds over the past 30 years, Takagi has gained 4.5 pounds, typical for her age cohort in Japan, according to U.S. and Japanese government figures.

Skinnier still are Japanese women younger than 60, who were thin by international standards three decades ago and who, taken as a group, have since been steadily losing weight.

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. For U.S. women of all ages, obesity rates have about doubled since 1980, rising from 17 percent to 35 percent.

Social pressure -- women looking critically at other women -- is the most important reason female skinniness is ascendant in Japan, according to Hisako Watanabe, a child psychiatrist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo.

"Japanese women are outstandingly tense and critical of each other," said 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."

Fatter men and children

Japan has long been the slimmest industrialized nation, thanks, in part, to a diet that emphasizes fish, vegetables and small servings. But what makes people fat around the world -- sedentary workplaces, processed food and lack of exercise -- is also making many Japanese fat.

Adult men and children of both sexes are gaining weight at a pace that worries the government. A quarter-century ago, 20 percent of men in their 50s were overweight; now, 32 percent are.

Attempting to head off heart disease and other obesity-related illnesses, the government imposed waistline standards in 2007, requiring girth measurements at work-funded physical examinations and encouraging the rotund to diet and exercise.

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