Fighting the good fight for a healthy natural diet

Mamiko Matsuda spreads the word in Japan on 'natural hygiene' after overcoming poor health

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Mamiko Matsuda, the best-selling author, translator and nutritional expert who divides her time between Japan and Houston, overcame an early struggle with poor health and disease to become an advocate for healthy diets and “natural hygiene.”

Matsuda, 63, also had to overcome a youthful fascination with what she calls the standard American Diet.

As a young student from Japan, the dining hall at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, seemed to Matsuda like a “special type of dream.”

High ceilings, glittering chandeliers and the pristine white walls of the plantation-styled sprawl of America’s deep South: This formal setting framed the abundant hospitality of food. Free refills, desserts at every meal, the bread- and meat-centered menus: “I felt like a queen. I always ate everything they served, and frequently finished my friends’ desserts as well,” Matsuda recalls.

Born in Yamanashi Prefecture in 1949, Matsuda and her family moved to Tokyo when she was 10, leading to her first encounter with Western cooking. “When I was in high school, my next-door neighbor was a cooking teacher. Her grandfather was a Greek, and she knew all about Western-style cooking, and that was fascinating to me. She always asked me to help her in the kitchen, since she had no daughters but only sons. Because it was in the ’60s and not many people knew about Western cooking — some people did not even have a refrigerator — I felt like I was ahead of all of my classmates. I found so many interesting things in Western culture and in the Western ways of life. My whole generation did. We were watching American dramas on TV and wondering about the Western way of thinking.”

Matsuda equally cultivated an interest in her own culture at university, where she earned a degree in Japanese literature from Senshu University in 1972. She worked for a few years at the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts in Tokyo, as well as a Japanese-language school, and found the work to be a satisfying way to share her love of Japanese culture.

Her fascination with America remained, however, and she searched for a way to study abroad. “A friend of mine who knew some professors at Wesleyan introduced me to this school, since they knew I was looking for a traditional woman’s college in a small town in America.”

It was the late 1970s in the United States, and an exciting time. Matsuda studied American culture and settled into her new life. With her background in Japanese literature and culture, she hoped to teach Americans about Japan after graduating. Her only worry was her failing health. “Even as I child, I was not physically strong,” Matsuda says. “I suffered from anemia, joint pains and all sorts of digestive problems. But I never saw any connection between my diet and my ill health.”

After graduating from Wesleyan in 1978, Matsuda followed her friend to Texas and found work at a Japanese company in Houston. She soon met her future husband, a Japanese businessman.

Although she enjoyed her work and life in the U.S., her health continued to decline, and at age 34 she was diagnosed with uterine myoma. “The doctors removed a tumor the size of a cantaloupe inside me, and I had to have a full hysterectomy,” she explains.

The shock of her cancer and the ensuing health complications devastated Matsuda. She moved back to Japan in 1986 with her husband once her treatment stabilized, but her health problems continued. “I was so weak. For three years I was in a miserable condition. I could not even carry groceries by myself.”

A good friend from the U.S. sent her the book “Fit for Life” as a Christmas present. A best-seller in the U.S., the book advocated a healthy lifestyle through plant-based food choices and food combinations.

Matsuda tried a few of the book’s suggestions, and the positive results changed the way she thought about diet and health. She decided to study more about one of the book’s foundational concepts — “natural hygiene” — and spent the next decade learning everything she could about diet and natural hygiene. “I took a correspondence course from the University of Natural Health in Mississippi, eventually earning a doctorate in natural health and healing. It made such a difference in my own health, I wanted to share this knowledge with Japanese people. I realized I myself have no impressive training, and Japanese people do not know who I am, so I should just translate the book ‘Fit for Life’ into Japanese.”

Ten years of proven, improved health invigorated her, and even with no experience translating, Matsuda worked hard to find a publisher. Her efforts were finally rewarded when her translation was published by Gsco Publishers in 2006.

The book soon found an audience, catapulting to the No. 1 spot in health-related books, and creating demand in Japanese for more natural health publications. Matsuda complied, publishing four books in five years, applying her knowledge specifically for women and children’s diets in Japan. “I also organized Japan Natural Hygiene Network and send out newsletters four times a year. I give seminars twice a year, whenever I am in Japan.”

Interest in the natural hygiene movement rapidly spread in Japan, but Matsuda believes she merely filled a need for information. “Many Japanese tried the health program and found it to be true for them personally; the program is not expensive and uses natural means to enhance energy levels. Also, the raw food movement from the U.S. has become popular in Japan, and the concept of raw foods originated from the philosophy of natural hygiene.”

Matsuda sees good nutrition as universal, a true melding of Eastern and Western ideas. “The traditional Japanese diet is much healthier than the traditional Western diet — look at elderly Okinawan people. Yet many modern Japanese are choosing a more Western diet, and there is one drawback in traditional Japanese food — the high salt intake. The topic of nutrition and healthy food choice is very important to Japan now after the tsunami and the nuclear crisis.”

Matsuda and her husband currently make their home in Houston, where Matsuda is also president of the Houston Health Association/Natural Hygiene Network. Constantly seeking to improve her knowledge on nutrition and diet, Matsuda travels the world to attend seminars and lectures, or to give lectures herself.

At one such conference she met T. Colin Campbell, author of the nutritional best-seller “The China Study.” Campbell, a director of the research collaboration between Cornell University, the University of Oxford and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, spent more than 20 years studying the relationship between diet and disease. Campbell asked Matsuda personally to translate his book into Japanese.

This translation wasn’t easy. Although she has built up a strong presence in the Japanese publishing world of health and nutrition, the book itself, with its exhaustive research, provided numerous challenges. “When I showed the first manuscript of the translation to my editor, he thought it was very difficult to understand in Japan. The time was not yet right. Also, he asked me to make it more simple with more explanations. I ended up rewriting the entire book three times.”

Matsuda persevered, and the translation was published in three volumes beginning in December of 2009. The last volume came out in February 2011 and remains the top-selling book in Japan for health and nutrition. It was recently recognized at the inaugural Katerva Awards, held at United Nations University in Tokyo.

Katerva, an international organization dedicated to creating an “open platform for global change,” awarded “The China Study” in the category of Food Security as “the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted” which “conclusively demonstrates the link between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancer.” Matsuda accepted the award on behalf of Dr. Campbell.

Matsuda’s own continued health attests to her beliefs. At 63, she enjoys a busy, international schedule, dividing her time between the U.S. and Japan. Her publisher is waiting for a new book planned for release this summer.

Looking back on her own health battles, Matsuda believes her success is simple. “I wanted to share what I had learned with the Japanese people. When you choose a good diet for the human body, it is a good diet for the Earth — we can save our lives at the same time we save our planet.”