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.

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.

Like most other Americans, I've heard for years that our national cuisine contains too much fat. But I never took this personally until I came to Japan. For the first month or two after arrival my wife and children and I felt constantly famished—even after we had gotten over the price shock that at first made us reluctant to buy anything at all. Although it took us a while to realize it, we were being starved for fat: a meal couldn't leave us feeling really full unless it laid down a rime of fat globules in our mouths and stomachs. (Let's not talk about our arteries.) Japanese food is varied and flavorful, and when accompanied by mounds of rice it can even seem filling. But for us it lacked staying power, because it had so little fat.

A week or two after arrival we suddenly grasped what was wrong when we passed one of Tokyo's countless McDonald's outlets and, overcome by atavistic cravings, turned back and rushed in. We ate Big Macs and drank milkshakes, felt the grease on our lips and fingers, and carried a full feeling with us the rest of the day.

We've adjusted more gracefully after our several months here. We live on rice, fish, pickles, noodles, and miso soup, made from soybeans. Most of the time we feel satisfied. We tell ourselves that Japan is making us healthier, even though we puff and trudge when we climb subway steps and generally feel like we're falling apart. But the idea that fat distinguishes the two cultures stays with us, like the fat from an order of fries.

It's not that the Japanese are uninterested in greasy, fat-drenched food. They are wild about McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Mr. Donut, and other American-style fat mines. Their own cuisine features one cheap, popular item that approximates the hot dog in nutritional value: ton katsu, a fatty pork cutlet, breaded and prepared like a Texas chicken-fried steak. I need hardly add that the local ton katsu outlet is my family's favorite haunt. Sushi eaters pay a premium for toro, the oiliest part of the tuna. Some of the most expensive food to be had in Japan (which is saying something) is its domestic beef, which is so thickly marbled with fat that every bite is a swirl of red and white. For sheer stupefying obesity, the biggest Japanese sumo wrestlers, at 400 pounds and up, make William "The Refrigerator" Perry look like an overpublicized fake.

But while recognizing that fat has its place, and even according it some dignity, the Japanese somehow avoid getting carried away. After we'd been going to a local public bath for several weeks, one of my sons looked around the room, inspecting the bodies one by one. Then he asked, in his loudest voice, "Daddy, why aren't there any fat people in Japan?" His question made me realize why I felt so at home in the baths. In America the typical locker-room situation always made me think of myself as an underdeveloped weakling. Here I was merely a taller version of everyone else.

About a month later I visited Yokosuka, a port town south of Tokyo where the U.S. Navy has a base. For the first time in Japan I saw dozens of American families on the street, not just the scattered businessmen and consultants of Tokyo. I stared goggle-eyed at my countrymen, amazed not at how tall they were or what a variety of colors they came in but at how many of them were fat. How do they do it? I found myself wondering. How can they possibly eat enough to become so much fatter than the Japanese? (The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture says that there's no mystery at all about the difference in girth. The average American is said to ingest 800 calories a day more than a Japanese—3,393 calories versus 2,593.)

Because fat in America runs along class lines, it should not be surprising that sailors' wives were fatter than the downtown sharpies from IBM. Still, I marveled at us as Americans, regardless of class. Every tank town in America has better sports facilities than can be found practically anywhere in Japan, but we take it for granted that we and our friends will get bigger and heavier with each passing year. Why did this happen to us? How do the cooped-up Japanese remain so lean and fit?

Primitive cultures attach moral and political significance to body size—powerful chiefs had better look well fed—and I'm afraid that I am starting to do the same thing. Forty years ago the physical contrast between Americans and Japanese was between the tall, strong victors and the short, weak vanquished. Now it looks to me like a contrast between a soft culture and a hard one—between people who eat to satiation and those whose portions are small.

The Japanese do permit themselves excesses: each night on the subway I see businessmen who are fall-down, throw-up drunk. But they generally curb their appetites and channel their energies into production, not mere exercise. On a trip outside Japan I watched a body-builder from UCLA work out in a hotel gym. I thought about the hours of hard work his physique had cost him. There are very few who resemble him in Japan. His counterparts spend their time not in the gym but with the work group.

Some Japanese friends tell me that things are changing. Kids are overeating now; adults are starting to worry about weight. I don't believe it, but I take heart ftom their concern. When Jane Fonda's Workout Book becomes a best seller in Japan, we'll know that our industries have a chance.

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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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