I t’s not often I get to watch my brother seethe and fume and look thoroughly uncomfortable — and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.
Growing up, I had suffered too often in the glare of his nit-picking scrutiny, so carefully concealing a grin under a mask of sisterly concern, I gently asked him to share his troubles with me.
“Indayo, guchi wo yuttemo. Kite ageru! (It’s OK, you can complain to me. I’ll listen!)”
He heaved a big sigh and spoke just one word in an almost inaudible whisper: metabo (fattiness).
Ah, metabo. The dastardly, dirty word. The most dreaded to appear on the colloquial wordscape since maybe chugoku yasai (vegetables grown in China).
Escape for those in a certain age bracket is impossible. My brother, who turned 40 last week, is now officially eligible for the shin kenko shindan (new health checkup) that subjects men over fuwaku no toshi (“the age when one is free of indecision”), or 40 years old, to a metabo kenshin (examination).
Men who take this exam have to endure the indignity of having a tape measure wrapped around their bellies to find out their haramawari (stomach circumference).
The cutoff point that determines whether or not a man is metabo is deemed by higher powers to be 85 cm, which at this very moment fills my brother’s heart with bitterness.
“85 cm nante otokoni shitemireba futsudayo! (85 cm is a perfectly normal number for a guy’s midsection!),” he says.
Having been on the judo team during college and then a quarterback for his company’s football team for 10 years, my brother is what you might call a fine figure of a man. My private nickname for him is “Hefty,” or in Japanese: “nikuman (meat dumpling).” I love him, but that’s what I call him.
Anyway, Hefty figures the only thing to do is fast for three days prior to the examination, wear a corset, get everything over with and then quietly retreat to the nearest izakaya (pub) for a daijokki (a stein-size mug of beer) and a huge plate of negima (spring onion and chicken on a skewer) — not a very creative or healthy way to combat the metabo issue, but I refrained from pointing this out. Kazoku ai (familial love), you know.
Metabo, of course, comes from metabolism, and when the word first made its foray into the collective Japanese conscience, metabo was simply the Japanified abbreviation of that word. Before long, however, it spread to mean himan (obesity) or chunen butori (middle-age fat).
Even my girlfriends use it to describe the area on the upper arms. “Miteyo, kono metabo! (Look at this fat flabbiness!),” they exclaim, after which we each grab a handful of each other’s metabo chunks and pull with many whoops of laughter. I have to tell you, though, that such pastimes are naively innocuous compared to the surreptitious visual ferreting out of each other’s metabo, then looking smugly away from the offending mass of flesh and sucking in one’s own tight stomach muscles at the same time.
My brother’s major gripe is: “Yaseteru yatsuga sonnani erainokayo (Are skinny guys that great?).” This is a question that I treat as purely rhetorical, on par with “Is Paris a city?”
There’s no getting away from the fact that skinny guys are praised. What’s more, they are cossetted and treated like some exotic extraterrestrial, deigning to walk the earth for a while and maybe shop for some snazzy D&G sportswear that displays their long slender limbs to full advantage.
You may argue that Japanese guys are plenty skinny, and enforcing a waistline of 85 cm or less seems unnecessarily harsh (it’s the lowest figure among industrial nations). However, a study by Nihon Ishikai (Japan Medical Association) shows Japanese males are at a higher risk than men elsewhere in the world because of their tendency to accumulate fat mainly around the stomach. This is hazardous to circulation, damages the immune system and heightens the possibilities of cancer.
So staying healthy means staying skinny. Not surprisingly, the kenko iryo shijo (the health and fitness medical market) is booming, fueled in part by a keen sense of panic: It’s 85 cm or bust. Personally speaking, I’m rooting for my brother.
“Hayaku shindemo i kara oishi gohan, tabetai! (I don’t care if I die soon, I’d rather eat tasty food!),” is how he puts it. Show ’em, Hefty!