Language | BILINGUAL

Japanese go out on a limb for health (but not for love)

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

If you haven’t noticed this beast, you’re one of the blessed and fortunate ones. It’s 花粉症の季節 (kafunshō no kisetsu, hay fever season), and the annual sufferers are all united in the opinion that it gets worse every year.

In spring in Japan, people are largely divided into two camps — those with masks and those without — and these days it’s not unusual to see people gathered for 花見 (hanami, cherry blossom viewing), playing with their kids in the park, or couples locked in a fevered kiss — all done behind their マスク (masuku, masks).

These masuku come with a range of functions and in an array of designs, and they’re often technological wonders worthy of deployment on the International Space Station. Still, it’s a bummer to slog through the day with stinging eyes and a runny nose — especially since the month of March coincides with the mountainous workload of 年度末 (nendomatsu, the end of the fiscal year). White Day? そんなの知ったこっちゃ ないよ (Sonna no shitta koccha nai yo, “Who cares about that?”)

But the Japanese are a pretty hardy bunch of people — just witness how long everyone lives. That’s because we’re generally good at taking care of ourselves and are extremely cautious about health and 安全 (anzen, physical safety). You could say it has become a national obsession, and one of the prominent 副産物 (fukusanbutsu, byproducts) of Japan’s 超高齢化社会 (chōkōreika shakai, super-aged society).

We weren’t always like this. Way back in the 20th century, when the writer of this column was still what’s called a 若者 (wakamono, youngster), it was considered the height of ださい (dasai, uncool) to want to live past 45. Many of the guys aspired to follow in the footsteps of actor Yusaku Matsuda (see “Black Rain”) and Kurt Cobain, whereas the girls looked up to 1970s porn goddess and novelist Izumi Suzuki and Yoko Araki, photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s wife and muse.

Look at us now. We have become a nation that would do anything for 健康 (kenkō, health), and the twin concerns of the Japanese (according to Livedoor News) are: 1) 年金 (nenkin, pension plans) and 2) 原発 (genpatsu , nuclear plants). Either way, the news is kind of awful: On the one hand, we have to live with the knowledge that the nenkin system is flawed and there’s no guarantee any of us will receive enough to see us through the long years after retirement; on the other hand, we could all be wiped out by nuclear contamination anyway. The general feeling in the air is 自分の健康は自分で守らなければ (Jibun no kenkō wa jibun de mamoranakereba, “We must take our health into our own hands”).

Now trending in the Japanese 健康 ブーム (kenkō būmu, health boom) are 体幹 (taikan, body core) training and 糖質制限 (tōshitsu seigen, limiting sugar). Although the Japanese are among the slimmest people on Earth (according to the World Health Organization, Japan’s obesity rate is 4.5 percent, ranking 166th in the world), everyone longs to get thinner. Right now, we believe that copious amounts of 運動 (undō, exercise) and limiting sugar intake is the ticket, which for many people translates to running at least three times a week and ditching 炭水化物 (tansuikabutsu, carbohydrates). More people are avoiding 白い食べ物 (shiroi tabemono, white-colored foods), namely 白米 (hakumai , white rice), 白パン (shiropan, white bread) and うどん (udon, wheat noodles), widely considered the three staples of the Japanese diet.

Personally speaking, this saddens me a little, since I hail from a family of enthused and adamant rice eaters. The last thing my mom did every night before she went to bed was 米とぎ (kometogi, washing the rice) and 炊飯器タイマーのセット (suihanki taimā no setto, setting the timer on the rice cooker), so that we could all sit down to breakfasts of hot rice and miso soup. In our house, the rice cooker was a 八号炊き (hachigōdaki, eight-cup rice cooker), but by 4 p.m. it would all be gone, as soon as one or other of my brothers came home. The rice-deprived would stumble around in the kitchen, clutching their お茶碗 (ochawan, rice bowls), bleary-eyed and moaning like zombies. Even now, the bros are dedicated 米好き (komezuki, rice lovers), which they insist is salient evidence of their being 純日本男児 (jun Nihon danji, pure Japanese males).

Lately, though, they’re having to admit that rice could be the biggest enemy of being ripped, and they’ve looked into Rizap, the famed personal training and diet company that has supposedly altered the lives of thousands of pudgy Japanese. At Rizap, the trainers carefully monitor their clients’ every meal as well as customize their work-out regimens. Most are banned from touching carbs altogether, and this includes the heinous 果糖 (katō, fructose) lurking in veggie juices and smoothies.

My own solution is to take the retro 禅寺 (Zen dera, Zen temple) approach and replace rice with お粥 (o-kayu, rice porridge). Carb intake is reduced to a mere fraction, but the fiber and vitamins of the rice are still there. O-kayu is also known to 鎮める (shizumeru, calm) the effects of kafunshō, and, in a few weeks, will obliterate it completely. As the saying goes, お坊さんは何でも知っている (Obō-san wa nandemo shitteiru, “The monks know what they’re doing”).