Naomi Watanabe is huge in Japan. She’s got almost 6 million followers on Instagram, she’s a regular on television shows and magazine covers, she has her own fashion line, and a Japanese railway company even created a “Naomi train” last year.
“My ideal body is that of a sumo wrestler — big but muscular,” Watanabe said with a laugh during an interview at a production company studio in Tokyo, where she had been doing a photo shoot for an upcoming Thomas the Tank Engine movie in which she does a voice-over.
In this country of overwhelmingly thin women — most fashionable stores don’t even stock sizes above M, and that’s a Japanese M — Watanabe is challenging deeply ingrained perceptions about body image, showing that it’s possible to be confident and happy even if you aren’t svelte.
"Japan is not like the U.S. You don't see many plus-sized women around here," she said, this day sporting pink and blue curls through her long pigtails. "But rather than trying to change other people's minds, I would like to help change the minds of bigger women, to help them feel good about themselves."
Bigger women are definitely in the minority in Japan. Only 3 percent of Japanese women are classified as obese, according to the World Health Organization, compared with 34.9 percent in the United States.
The government even has a law setting out maximum waist sizes for company employees over the age of 40: 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women. Those with wider girths are ordered to attend nutrition and exercise lessons.
But many young women are dangerously thin. Government health data shows that 22 percent of Japanese women in their 20s can be categorized as underweight or malnourished.
Watanabe offers another way. She’s not promoting weight gain but instead wants to encourage body positivity. And she delivers her message in hilarious Technicolor on Instagram. She posts photos of herself in crazy outfits or funny poses — with ice cream, or trying to eat people.
While in Milan, where she appeared at Fashion Week for the Italian brand Furla, she posted a photo of her feet on the scale, approaching 100 kilograms, or 220 pounds. "Um . . . Did I eat too much pizza? I believe I weighed 45 kg before I came to Milan."
Another photo, posted on her 29th birthday, showed her in a swimming pool wearing a pink bathing suit with bagels on the breasts. It got more than 620,000 likes, earning her the title "Most Valued Instagrammer" in Japan last year, with the tech company saying her "daring yet humorous expressions" had captured wide attention.
It would be an understatement to say that Watanabe doesn’t take herself too seriously.
Asked who she’d want to play her in a film, she said Arnold Schwarzenegger or perhaps John Travolta, since he can sing and dance. She told a Japanese fashion blog that her workout routine involves lying on her back, eating curry and rice while doing leg lifts.
She was also named one of Vogue Japan’s “Women of the Year” in 2016, partly because she’d set clear goals and achieved them, notably going on a “world tour” to Los Angeles, New York and Taipei last year.
Watanabe, who was born to a Taiwanese mother and Japanese father who divorced when she was young, had always wanted to be a comedian.
Against her mother’s wishes, she made her debut when she was 18. Three years later, she got her big break, appearing on a television show doing an outrageous Beyoncé impersonation. She soon became a regular on Japanese shows, lip-syncing to “Crazy in Love” and earning the title “Japan’s Beyoncé.”
Her repertoire now includes Beyoncé's Super Bowl routine, complete with black leather costume, and Lady Gaga impersonations.
In 2013, she became a regular cover girl for a new magazine aimed at plus-size women, part of a trend to make “pocchari” — “marshmallow girls” — more accepted.
The following year she launched her own clothing brand, called Punyus, a play on the Japanese word for "squishy" or "bouncy."
“In Japan, larger-sized women couldn’t wear what they wanted. They couldn’t wear skirts, they would wear only black and would never show any skin,” Watanabe said. “Of course, larger women want to be fashionable, too, but there weren’t any fashionable clothes for us.”
So she started Punyus, offering a range of cool styles, from street and hip-hop to “kawaii” — Japanese cute. “Sometimes women come up to me in the street and start crying, saying, ‘Thanks to you, I have clothes that make me feel cool,’ ” she said.
On Instagram, followers say they’re encouraged by Watanabe. “I want to learn from you and have more self-confidence,” wrote Hitomi Yamamura on one recent photo that Watanabe posted.
The comedian says she’s noticed some change in attitudes even in the past few years.
“Japanese women are changing, and there are loads more women who can express themselves and many fewer women who just say yes to everything like before,” she said. “I see more women becoming superstrong and confident, and it helps me grow, too.”
Still, Watanabe shies away from calling herself a feminist. “I’m not like Beyoncé, being a powerful woman,” she said, letting out a roar and raising her arm as if to flex her muscles.
In the overwhelmingly male world of comedy, there’s a prevailing sentiment that women are to be seen and not heard, she said.
“This is normal in Japanese society in general. This idea that you’re a woman so you shouldn’t work, just stay home,” Watanabe said. “That’s why women try to learn how to cook very well, so they can hear their loved ones say ‘Mmm, delicious’ and quit their job. I just don’t like it that there’s no other choice but that.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.