No-Fat City

Walking Tokyo streets leads an American to wonder, Why are the Japanese so much thinner than we are? And why do they live longer?

This may seem a small thing, but it sums up many of the differences between us and the Japanese: they can live practically forever in circumstances that Americans have come to regard as fatal.

I'm not talking about the threat of beriberi or industrial wastes or anything so exotic—only about exercise. Most Japanese, judging by the ones I have seen during a four-and-a-half-month stay in Tokyo, live in happy ignorance of aerobics, health clubs, and Nautilus machines—and they live, and live, and live. Last summer the government released the latest set of statistics showing that Japanese people are living even longer than they used to, and easily longer than we are. The average life expectancy for Japanese women is now more than eighty years, and for men it's in the mid-seventies. Yet during those long years the average Japanese person will rarely work up a sweat.

I should perhaps explain why this mystery is so intriguing to me. I have reached a stage of life (I've just turned thirty-seven) at which practical steps toward longevity are more interesting than they used to be. For twenty or so years before arriving in Japan I'd placed my hopes for health and heartiness where many other Americans have: on exercise and sports. Long ago I played on school tennis teams and ran cross-country. He-man activities these may not be, but I enjoyed them, and kept on enjoying them until a few months ago. I also thought it must do at least some good to be out there, breathing hard, several times a week. Wasn't that, in fact, precisely what all the health experts recommended?

The only thing I'm now sure of is that exercise used to make me feel better. These days I don't get any, and I feel like hell. In Japan I walk a lot—to and from train stations, up and down the endless subway stairs—but almost never run, swim, play tennis or basketball, or engage in any other forms of exercise that tax lungs and sweat glands. Last month, on a trip to Hiroshima, I rowed my family around in a little boat. Three months ago I sneaked onto the British Embassy's tennis court and played tennis for half an hour-mixed doubles. That's about it.

The reason for my new indolence is perfectly simple: Tokyo is so crowded that it doesn't have space for sports. I once read that Frank Shorter, the famous marathoner, never missed a day of running, even when on the road. He'd change his clothes in an airport bathroom and head outside to put in a few miles. No doubt he would have found a way to make even Tokyo into a sports paradise. I frequently see a few people like him—Westerners, mainly, who push their way down the jammed sidewalks as they attempt to "run" a few miles.

Conceivably I could have followed their example—running late at night after my trip home on the train. My wife could theoretically have gone swimming, if she'd been willing to wait in line several hours at the pool built for the 1964 Olympic Games. We could have tried harder, could have joined the foreign madmen dodging down the street, could have shown more of that cardinal Japanese virtue, fighting spirit. My point is that most Japanese—who, after all, are going to outlive us—take Tokyo's limits for granted and don't even try.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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