When Kit Kitatani was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1986, he went through the usual procedure of having the tumor surgically removed and starting chemotherapy treatments. But his white blood-cell count was too low to continue the chemo. His doctor said he had less than six months to live.
A Shizuoka native, Kitatani was living in New York at the time. After hearing the bad news, a friend told him about an unorthodox method she’d used to recover from her own sickness.
“She said she got better from eating brown rice,” says Kitatani. “My doctor had given up on me so I didn’t have any other choice. It was a question of life or death for me.”
Kitatani adopted a lifestyle known as macrobiotics in hopes of reviving his health. “Three years later my cancer was completely gone,” Kitatani says.
Twenty-two years later, Kitatani is enjoying a happy and healthy life and will celebrate his 74th birthday next week.
Developed in Japan in the 1950s, macrobiotics (which derives from the Greek words “macro” [big] and “bios” [life]) is based on the philosophy of “a big view of life,” which teaches that the art of prolonging life is living in harmony with nature. Macrobiotics aims to heal sicknesses caused by the stresses and strains of modern life by applying the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang — the complementary and opposing forces found in all objects and phenomenon — to an individual’s diet and lifestyle.
“We’re not going to change Tokyo into a natural, beautiful environment in two days or two years, but we can change our diet,” says Patricio Garcia de Paredes, education director at the Kushi Macrobiotic Academy in Ebisu, Shibuya Ward, one of eight such schools throughout Japan dedicated to the teaching of macrobiotic cooking and philosophy. “Quality of food affects quality of life.”
In recent years, increasing numbers of people worldwide have recognized the wisdom of this approach and have started using macrobiotics to benefit various areas of their lives. Twenty-seven-year-old Til Schlaak from Germany, who came to Japan three months ago to study at the Kushi Academy, originally adopted macrobiotics because he thought it would improve his performance in competitive mountain biking and help him feel less tired after races.
“When I first heard about it, I thought it was like a religion so I didn’t want anything to do with it,” says Schlaak. “But I tried it before a race and after I felt much better than usual. My body gained health and power, my blood-sugar level wasn’t too low, and my mind became clearer.”
One of Schlaak’s aims in coming to Japan was to learn more about a “new style” of macrobiotics, which combines modern European and Western cuisine with traditional Japanese foods and ancient Chinese philosophy.
In fact, while macrobiotics is commonly thought of as quintessentially Japanese, its history is in many ways a story of cross-pollination between East and West.
The philosophy has its roots in the approach of Sagen Ishizuka, a Japanese army doctor who treated hundreds of soldiers toward the end of the 19th century by feeding them a diet of brown rice and vegetables. Once called the “Anti-Doctor Doctor,” Ishizuka rejected the trend toward adopting European medicine and dietary principles, arguing instead that consumption of natural, unrefined foods was the best way to promote health.
Ishizuka’s theories were further developed during the 1950s by George Osawa, a disciple of Ishizuka’s who had been diagnosed with “incurable” tuberculosis as a child but managed to regain full heath by following Ishizuka’s dietary principles. Osawa, now known as the father of modern macrobiotics, passed his knowledge on to many students, including Michio Kushi, who moved to the United States in 1949 and popularized macrobiotics there, and she also established the Kushi Macrobiotic Foundation, which runs the Kushi Macrobiotic Academies in Japan.
The first Kushi school in Japan opened in Osaka about nine years ago. Since then, Tokyo schools have opened in Kodaira, Kichijoji (two years ago) and Ebisu (from April) this year.
“Sometimes I feel kind of funny because I’m teaching Japanese about traditional cooking and I’m from the West,” says Garcia de Paredes. “Their traditional foods are foreign to them.”
“We’re going back to what we’ve done before in Japan. It’s not difficult. It’s very simple, natural and logical,” says Nagisa Shibata, a 37-year-old mother who enrolled at Kushi to learn how to lose weight gained during pregnancy. “Kushi’s book is my bible. I tried his recipes at home and my health has recovered and I’m very happy.”
In addition to diet, macrobiotics teaches that elements such as natural lighting, wearing loose cotton clothing and keeping plants in your home all add to a healthy lifestyle.
“The more I study macrobiotics, the more I’m interested not only in the diet program but also ecological and environmental issues, health for kids and physical and spiritual wellness,” says Shibata.
Shibata lived in New York for eight years, where, she says, it was easy to eat healthily because of the abundance of vegetarian restaurants. Since returning to Japan 10 years ago, she’s noticed a dramatic difference.
“I don’t think many Japanese have healthy diets. The roles have changed and Japan is eating a Western diet,” says Shibata.
According to Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, in 1946 a typical diet consisted of 60.2 percent rice and 0.5 percent meat. But by 1997, rice intake had plummeted to 24.7 percent and meat intake had increased to 16.5 percent.
“While the West was making dietary changes to prevent diseases like cancer, Japan was moving more into the direction of a Western diet and decreasing its traditional staple of foods like grains, tofu and miso,” says Garcia de Paredes. “They were looking to the West for modern diets, which include meat, dairy, eggs and highly processed foods such as microwave dinners.
“Macrobiotics has been here the whole time,” he says. “It started here, but people didn’t care about it because they were already eating healthy balanced diets of more seasonal foods. Thirty years ago Japan had one of the lowest cancer rates in the world, so the West was studying Japanese diets to see why.”
After decades of studies linking modern diet to a rise in chronic illness, the Food Guide Pyramid, which recommends a higher intake of whole grain than that of meat, was introduced in the U.S. in 1992, replacing the old Four Food Groups. The World Health Organization followed suit two years later by creating a similar pyramid.
“Diet, together with an artificial environment of fluorescent lights and microwaves, eventually led to health problems [in Japan], like an increase in allergies and cancer, and [Japanese people] wondered why and how to change it,” says Garcia de Paredes. “So macrobiotics is coming back.”
Indeed, according to Kazuhiko Mochizuki, director of Kushi in Ebisu (their largest school, with a capacity of 40 students), classes fill up in no time.
“We have a waiting list of 100 people for October’s term,” says Mochizuki. “We need more teachers, so in October we’re starting a new teacher training program.”
According to Mochizuki, all current teachers were trained in English at the main Kushi Institute in Massachusetts.
“Maybe one or two years from now we’ll open a class for foreigners,” says Mochizuki. “If popularity demands, we’ll open one sooner.”
And who knows? As macrobiotics in re-exported, the way to a more balanced life and diet may continue to evolve.
The macrobiotic diet in brief
* Eat only when hungry and drink only when thirsty. Take an amount that’s just enough to satisfy. Chew food thoroughly in a relaxed manner with good posture.
* Grain is the main staple and should consist of 50 percent of each meal’s volume. Twenty to 30 percent should be vegetables, 5 to 10 percent soups and 5 to 10 percent beans and sea vegetables. Local, seasonal foods are best. Foods should be natural, unrefined and whole.
* Diet must be balanced through an intake of yin and yang. Yin foods, such as leafy greens, grow above ground in hotter climates, are more watery and perish quickly. Root vegetables grown in colder climates are more yang. These include carrots, turnips and parsnips. Yin foods are high in potassium and yang foods in sodium. When you eat something high in yin, you should balance it with something yang. Grains are most balanced.