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?

The few exercise clubs that exist in Tokyo are well beyond the reach of the average Japanese family. One extremely well-off Japanese friend told me that he had recently joined a swimming club with a $10,000 initiation fee. The club has 1,500 members, who compete for use of one twenty-five-meter pool. When they stop working and are ready to have a good time, most Japanese still prefer more or less sedentary activities—purposeful drinking, fancy restaurant meals, parties to view the cherry blossoms or maple leaves or even the new-fallen snow. Teenage girls in Tokyo have lately favored carrying black nylon tennis-racket bags, labeled Dunlop or Donnay, as fashion accessories and statements of self. From the way they hang on the girls' shoulders and feel when they jab into my kidneys on the subway car, I assume that the bags actually contain rackets. But I would bet that most of them have never been used—unless, of course, being carried and admired is in fact their primary function.

Many Japanese youngsters take up gymnastics, kendo, or other aerobic activities, but as grown-up "salarymen" or housewives, they tend to leave these childish pursuits behind. In America I often talked sports with my friends—not sports we watched so much as sports we played. In Japan I've had many conversations about the surno bashos (tournaments) and Japan-league baseball, but the only friends who have mentioned their own athletic interests are those who have lived in America and come to think of exercise as something they should have.

So why are they all so healthy? Why, even before outliving us, do they look so much fresher and less shopworn than Westerners of similar age? (My rule of thumb when meeting a Japanese man is to guess his age by Western standards of wrinkles and hair loss—and then add ten years to come up with his real age. The misjudgment runs the other way, too: people here are always guessing that I am older than I am.) Maybe they look so young because Tokyo's cheerless climate spares them the withering effects of the sun. But there must be more to Japanese vigor and longevity than the near-omnipresent cloud cover over Tokyo, which has a copious annual rainfall.

The answer, of course, is the Japanese diet. By living so long while bestirring themselves so little, the Japanese prove that their diet is healthier than ours, and that diet matters more than exercise does. But there is an emotional significance to this statement that is hard to appreciate until you've lived it. Japanese food is on the whole superb, one of the adornments of the culture. Yet merely by eating it one begins to feel part of a society that is frugal, competitive, keen-edged.

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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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