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Trimming the fat from Japan’s problems

by Michael Hoffman

Why do people disagree?

It seems a stupid question. Maybe it is. Or maybe not. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that we are all rational beings. We possess average intelligence, adequate and more or less similar education, and copious exposure to all the information the information age generates in such profusion. Let us suppose further (granted, real life isn’t always like this) that we all employ our educated and informed rational faculty in good faith. We have no vested interests to defend. We are open-minded, ever willing to acknowledge ourselves wrong if shown to be so, or to change our opinion if a more persuasive one comes along.

Is there any public issue about which well-intentioned, intelligent people do not irreconcilably, vehemently disagree? Take Japan’s most pressing problems — the struggling economy; the declining and aging population; increasingly strong and assertive neighbors; radioactivity. On none of these issues is there anything close to a consensus, either among experts or laypeople. On the economy, there are advocates of government spending and advocates of austerity. On population decline, some insist mass immigration would revive Japan while others maintain it would be Japan’s ruin. On menacing neighbors, Japan should revise its antiwar Constitution, strengthen its armed forces and refuse to back down; or no, it should do the exact opposite: apologize anew for wartime sins, preserve the Constitution as it is and rely on soft rather than hard power. On radiation, scrap nuclear reactors, their danger having been proven beyond a doubt; or restart them for the sake of the economy, the damage of even the dreadful Fukushima No. 1 meltdowns having after all caused no immediate deaths and, so far, no evident health deterioration.

Each side on all these issues — and it’s not just two sides, of course; there are innumerable shades of opinion in the middle — cites supporting facts, figures, authoritative analysis, historical precedents. Few opinions are self-evidently stupid or self-evidently true, few facts immune to rebuttal by other facts, no conclusions unassailable. Today’s wisdom is tomorrow’s idiocy, and vice versa. The wonder is that most people manage all the same to hold such firm convictions.

It may seem an abrupt descent from such lofty issues to meat and metabo, but that’s where we’re going, and it isn’t a descent at all, because few controversies touch us more intimately than those over how we should feed ourselves. “Metabo” signifies metabolic syndrome, which in turn signifies excessive corpulence and its accompanying health risks, considered by many — not by all, it goes without saying — to have risen dangerously in Japan due to an increasingly Western diet. A law passed in 2008 in effect sets government-mandated limits on waistlines — 85 cm for men, 90 cm for women. Individuals aged 40 to 74 found at compulsory annual checkups to exceed those limits must submit to expert advice on sensible eating.

Two questions arise. First, what does “Western diet” mean? That’s relatively easy. Chemically, it means a diet high in total fat, cholesterol, sugar and other refined carbohydrates. Gastronomically: more meat, bread and dairy products; less rice and fish.

The harder question is, what does “sensible eating” mean?

This past January a book was published that shot straight up the best-seller lists. Its title is “Nagaiki Shitakeriya Nikku wa Taberu na” (“Wanna Live Long? Don’t Eat Meat!”). Its author is Yuko Wakasugi, not a medical professional but a woman whose age (76), health (robust) and place of residence (a Kyoto Prefecture mountain village noted for longevity) lend her much credibility with the reading public. Her book touts the traditional simple lifestyle that her village keeps alive against the challenges of modernity. Meat, milk and eggs, she asserts, pollute the blood. They feed cancer and other diseases. Aera magazine last month adorned an article about her book with a photo of a slab of steak marbled with and encased in fat. The impression the photo gives, whether or not scientifically tenable, is of disease incarnate.

The equation of meat with evil — irresistibly appetizing evil, evidently, since consumption has skyrocketed, but evil even so — seems to accord with something in the Japanese temperament, nurtured as it was for centuries on lighter, blander fare. That’s probably why Wakasugi’s book sold 190,000 copies in its first three months. Her thesis is nonsense all the same, say the doctors and nutritionists Aera speaks to. “Meat is rich in good proteins our bodies need but can’t make,” says Kyoto Koka Women’s University doctor of medicine Takako Hirota. She and others insist the true road to health is nutritional balance, not reliance on, or exclusion of, this or that item.

What, then, is our hypothetical average intelligent and informed person to conclude? That meat is harmful, as Wakasugi asserts and as the crackdown on metabo suggests, or that it’s harmless and even beneficial, as at least some experts claim?

There’s a broader and more puzzling question: Is discipline itself good or bad?

Maybe we should just jettison the rules, dismiss the advice, silence the experts and eat what we please, trust our instincts, do what feels good.

Any takers?

Maybe rules and discipline and self-restraint are themselves carcinogenic. Seriously? Juntendo University immunologist Yasushi Okumura is very serious indeed. Interviewed by Sunday Mainichi magazine, he cites an extended research project dating back to the 1970s and ’80s. Twelve hundred men aged 40 to 45 were divided into two groups, one group put on a strict health regime — no drinking, no smoking, carefully restricted diet — and the other given absolutely free rein. Guess which group, 15 years later, had more cancer and heart disease?

If I hadn’t loaded the question you’d have said the second group for sure, and been wrong — though not all experts, of course, believe the results are trustworthy.

Where does that leave us? Nowhere, convinced of nothing, open to anything and doubtful of everything — hopefully not to the point of paralysis, however, for Japan’s most urgent problems do seem to call for vigorous action of some kind.

  • Spudator

    Ah, the dreaded Western diet.

    It’s certainly true than these days a salaryman with a paunch spilling over his flashy belt buckle is a familiar sight; and out-and-out fatties of both sexes are making it ever harder to squeeze into that vacant seat on the train. Compared with the way things were, say, twenty-odd years ago there’s definitely been an inflationary trend in body mass indices.

    But then twenty-odd years ago salarymen, as well as being trim, were tiny: the Japanese male was, generally speaking, a midget and a bit of a wimp. And as for the women, while they weren’t stout, they could be quite stocky, especially in the leg department. You’d often see groups of giggling sailor-suited schoolgirls on the train hiding their giggles behind their hands (remember when they used to do that?) and showing off the kind of bulging calf muscles that could kick-start a jumbo jet. In contrast, in the breast department, things definitely fell a bit flat for the majority of Japanese womanhood.

    Quite simply, before the Japanese started putting away the pizzas and the steaks, they weren’t a particularly imposing race in terms of physique and physical beauty. In fact it’d probably be fair to say that, because of an inadequate, Japanese-style diet, they were underdeveloped. Nowadays, despite the downside of metabolic syndrome, Western-style food has allowed the Japanese to achieve the kind of bodies nature meant them to have. Young men are now tall and well built, and so no longer to be looked down on; young women are developed in all the right ways: long legs instead of tree trunks, and the kind of cleavage they can take pride in showing off. In short, Japanese men have become manly; Japanese women, womanly. This is how humans are supposed to be.

    As for metabo, perhaps the answer lies in a traditional part of Japanese culture: Buddhism and the Buddhist concept of the middle way, which can probably be interpreted as being moderate in all things. In other words, enjoy that pizza, just don’t guzzle so many slices. You know, maybe that’s something we can all benefit from, Easterner and Westerner alike: Western-style nutrition to make us big, strong and beautiful; Eastern-style philosophy to keep us like that.

    I guess the Buddha would have approved of such a middle way.

  • nobuo takamura

    Action is to time what thinking is to space. We live in both. No problem in thinking only, no problem in doing anything except such and such. Who knows? I, however, suppose I wish I could end up being happy in this life without being bothered by someone, especially greedy politicains.