Western Food in Japan
In an orange shirt, green-plaid pants, and black-and-white bucks, Hirashika Koji is a Crayola splotch of color in the gray-suited McDonald's lunch crowd.
He dresses to stand out from the throng, but Japan's health experts would say the showbiz manager's looks are all too typical. He's a bit jowly, as he'll admit, and when he leans back in his chair, his shirt strains against a burgeoning little belly.
Japanese men like Mr. Koji have been packing on the pounds. Today the Health and Welfare Ministry says 1 in 3 males in their 30s is overweight. Whole police departments are dieting, and even Sumo wrestlers have been asked to stop dipping into the cookie jar quite so often.
For a nation weaned on grilled fish and white rice, this is unusual - Sumo aside, chubby Japanese men don't loom large in the national self-image. But wealth, post-World War II policy, and international influences have changed the way Japanese eat.
Along with rising crime and unemployment, male waistlines are a small but rapidly expanding sign of how Japan is becoming less a set of islands unto itself, and more like the world's other industrial nations.
After centuries of a refined, lean cuisine based on rice, soybeans, pickles, and fish, the Japanese have embraced Italian pastas, rich French sauces, and fiery Mexican tacos. Even small-town restaurants offer dishes such as curry rice (beef in a rich, not-so-spicy sauce) or hot cakes.
Japan has been assimilating Western food for centuries: ``Pan,'' the word for bread, was borrowed from Portuguese traders who arrived in the 16th century.
But the influx of Western food has jumped dramatically in recent years.
The number of convenience stores, which stock Oreos, Ritz crackers, ice cream, potato chips, and the like, has quadrupled since 1985. And fast-food chains have proliferated, catering to those with a hankering for mayonnaise-topped pizza (a local specialty), fried chicken, or a hambaagaa, as burgers are known here.
McDonald's quick expansion is one measure of the appetite for fast food. In 1993 the US chain had 1,043 stores. By 1997, it had 2,439. This pleases Koji, the flashy dresser, who eats at the US chain about three times a week. ``It's cheap, it's fast, and I like the taste,'' he says, though he - and the Health Ministry - worry about how fatty some of the food is. ``Young people don't eat much tofu, seafood, or green vegetables anymore,'' the ministry frets in a report, adding that they don't exercise enough either. (Women, it notes, haven't gained much weight at all over the last few decades.) But men have become cause for concern. Seven prefectures, or states, have announced their men in blue are requiring increasingly larger uniforms.
The forces are taking this seriously. Some stations have installed body-fat scales. In southern Fukuoka prefecture, where almost half the officers were issued warnings, the officials organized weight-loss competitions. ``It turned out to be a success,'' says spokesman Kazuo Inoue, ``[but] we're still working on this.''
If young Japanese have forsaken tofu for teriyaki burgers, government policy bears some responsibility. After the war, food shortages and the large number of orphans led teachers to organize free lunches for students who had none. The Ministry of Education got involved, leading to school-lunch laws designed to promote the physical and mental development of Japan's children.
But the food - some of it made with wheat from US postwar aid programs - was very Western. Students ate omelets, hamburgers, or sandwiches. ``Because many Japanese adults grew up this way, they have no hesitation to feed their children the same way,'' says nutritionist Daisuke Futami, who teaches at a college outside Tokyo.
As Japan rebuilt after the war, its people were able to afford better quality food in greater quantities. Mr. Futami estimates that Japanese today eat five times the amount of meat and animal fat that they did in the 1940s.
On Japanese streets, the generational difference in diet is clear: Young people are taller than their parents and often tower over grandparents.
"Japanese people are getting bigger in general," says Takeshi Hayashi of the Japan Sumo Association. His wrestlers weigh an average of 338 pounds - 50 pounds heavier than they were in 1975. Fans are complaining that the wrestlers are getting too big and it's bad for the sport: The games are no longer as exciting or as drawn out. ``We haven't ordered them to diet,'' says Mr. Hayashi, ``but we've warned them informally.''