A post on the popular English language news site Japan Probe came to my attention today. The post highlights an article in the June edition of British women’s magazine Marie Claire entitled “Anorexia: The Epidemic Japan Refuses to Face Up To” and brands it “stupid journalism”. As a semi-regular reader of Marie Claire, I was curious to read it for myself.
The article, written by freelance journalist Georgia Hanias, featuring photographs by Kayo Yamawaki, focuses on the growing “epidemic” of eating disorders in Japan. Hanias features painfully thin 25-year-old Hachiko, quoting her as saying “My body shows what I’m going through. I don’t want to hide any more. In Japan, we don’t talk openly about our problems. We always pretend nothing is wrong. Silence is a virtue. It’s about time people faced up to what is really happening.”
Anorexia and bulimia are not topics I know much about, whether we’re talking about the UK or Japan.I’m not qualified to comment on the facts, but I can draw on my own experiences and encounters with people who have suffered from eating disorders. In the UK, I have known a couple of people who have fought eating disorders. In Japan I knew one woman who I suspecting might have an eating disorder, and a few people who suffered from depression which led to other problems including self-harm. I don’t recall ever having many conversations about eating disorders in either country, although I have had more conversations than I can count about dieting and healthy eating – a topic which seems popular for women all over the world. If I had read the article without the preconceptions given to me by Japan Probe’s branding of “stupid journalism”, I would probably have agreed with most of what Hanias says, although I do think her view of Japan as a country is a little narrow.
Let’s look at the points Japan Probe picks up on, all of which are based on a ‘review’ of the article found here. The red parts are quotes from the review of the Marie Claire article, and the blue parts are Japan Probe’s comments.
‘In Japanese there are no words for “I’m suffering” or “I’m sad”. I can’t share my feelings with anyone. Needing help is seen as failure, something to be ashamed of.’
Even though a Japanese person may have said this, it’s absolute bullshit. The Japanese language has words to express those feelings, just like every other language on the planet. It is astounding that the author took such a statement at face value and made it the opening line of an article about a serious subject.
Fortunately this isn’t the opening line of the actual Marie Claire article. The actual opening line is “A Krispy Kreme shop is the last place you’d expect to find an anorexic.” I do agree that it’s a silly comment to put much weight on, and of course there are words for “I’m suffering” or “I’m sad” in Japanese. However, as the article correctly points out, Japanese culture is such that people are discouraged from expressing their true feelings, especially if those feelings might make someone else feel uncomfortable or put someone out. If someone is overworked and exhausted and you ask them how they are, they will most likely tell you they are fine. If they are given more work to do, they will accept it without a grumble. This is a generalisation, of course, but I think it is fair to say that Japanese people are discouraged from expressing feelings of sadness or the fact that they need help.
The next point Japan Probe picks up on is to do with calories and Body mass Index (BMI)…
In fact, women in Japan are consuming fewer calories than they did in the Second World War. A third of the population of Japan has a Body Mass Index of less than 18.5, considered in Japan to be the lowest healthy weight.
Japan’s Health Ministry publishes annual reports on the nutrition of the Japanese people. The most recent report found that 11.0% of women and 4.6% of men have a Body Mass Index of less than 18.5 (underweight). It also found that 21.1% of women and 30.4% of men had a Body Mass Index of greater than 25 (overweight).
The statement about daily calories also does not present a fair picture of nutrition in Japan. As of 2008, the per capita amount was 1,867 calories per day, which is indeed quite low. Japanese wartime sources show that daily caloric intake declined from 1,971 calories a day in 1942 to 1,793 calories a day in 1945. The American military reported that by the summer of 1945 average caloric intake had dropped to 1,680 a day, with mining and heavy industry workers receiving greater amounts of food than others. Few women worked in the coal mines, so it is safe to assume that they were suffering badly during the war years. By 1945, many Japanese were starving, eating peanut shells, insects, and sawdust. Women in today’s Japan may not consume many calories, but the nutritiousness of their meals probably far exceeds that of the food available during the bleak war years.
I admit that I haven’t checked the facts, and I’m certainly not an expert on the topic of nutrition. If we assume Japan Probe have done their homework, it would seem Marie Claire‘s Georgia Hanias was misinformed. However, Hanias does make a valid point about the sale of “calorie-curbing products such as diet pills, slimming teas and laxatives, packaged in bright, candy-coloured boxes, lin[ing] the shelves of pharmacies on every street corner“. I’ve seen such products in Japan, and Hanias’ comment is a fairly accurate picture of the truth. If you can’t read Japanese, it might seem like there are a lot of different kinds of sweets available in the drug store. I don’t know what the rules are about the purchase of such products, but it certainly does seem like they would be easy to buy. I knew a lot of women in Japan who bought these kinds of products and consumed them regularly. Without studying the ingredients myself, and having a better knowledge of the products in question, I can’t really say how harmful they are. What I can say though, is that cough sweets are as readily available and as brightly packaged in Japan, and aren’t half as strong or as medicated as anything you can buy in the UK, which makes me wonder if a lot of these so-called diet products are actually just sweeties.
Japan Probe’s final stab…
The author also attacks the Japanese concept of cuteness:
The article explores the Japanese phenomenon of ‘kawaii’, meaning cute, a bizarre mix of highly sexualised, pre-pubescent imagery. Dolls, cartoons and pop stars all radiate the message that thin is beautiful.
If the full article does devote significant space to complaining about the sexualization of pre-pubescent females, it is missing the point entirely. The idea that thin is beautiful goes beyond cuteness in Japan. Japanese women of all ages, including women who aren’t trying to look “kawaii” or pre-pubescent, feel pressure to be thin. The numerous television programs and bestselling books that promise weight loss to housewives almost never focus on cuteness.
This is where I would agree with Japan Probe 100%. Hanias’ view seems very narrow – taking the typical stance that “kawaii” = images like the one in the above picture of a manga-esque figurine and that this is what all Japanese women aspire to. She seems to be under the impression that “kawaii” = skinny, which I don’t think it does. Yes, a lot of Japanese women fall for marketing ploys that tell them that skinny = beautiful, but isn’t the same true for the UK, the US, and many other countries? Speaking from my own experience as a non-skinny woman in the UK, I feel that most magazines (Marie Claire included) don’t include many images of “real” women, and that all of the models and celebrities I see are slim and glossy and nothing like I could ever be. Clothes in “cool” shops stop at a size 12 (max) and don’t cater for women whose thighs weren’t designed for skinny jeans.
Some women see these unrealistic images in advertising and aspire to them, which can lead to eating disorders, but this is not something which is unique to Japan. Women are generally much slimmer in Japan (although I did meet quite a number of overweight women during my three years in Japan), and men are slimmer too. Japanese bodies are generally smaller than British bodies (sumo wrestlers aside!), so it’s natural that Japanese women would be slimmer, weigh less, and eat less.
As I said at the beginning, this isn’t a topic I know much about, but I think eating disorders need attention in the media and I am glad that this article has been published, even if there are some errors in it. British media is often disappointing when it comes to reporting the truth about Japan and Japanese culture, but at least they thought this topic interesting enough to warrant a feature article.