By Jacques Lhuillery

A sumo wrestler at an exhibition in Tokyo's Yasukuni sanctuary, April 2, 2012.
AFP PHOTO /Richard A. Brooks

TOKYO, January 27, 2013 - After spending years in the Near East and in Africa, where local specialties include greasy falafels and sugar-laden loukoum, I’m accustomed to seeing people with a fuller figure. So Japan – where an enviably spindly profile is the norm – was the last place I expected to find a full-bore national anti-obesity program. But not only has the Land of the Rising Sun had one for the last four years, being overweight is, technically, illegal. Not frowned upon, but illegal.

Dubbed the “metabo law” -- after metabolic syndrome, Japan’s official name for obesity – the new rules were approved in 2008 by the Japanese parliament, an assembly which, by some weird quirk of happenstance, is called the National Diet.

Anyway, ever since it’s been open season on love handles and beer bellies. Indeed, metabo has become a buzzword that’s entered into the everyday lexicon. People are no longer fat, they are metabo.

As someone who wears his suits until they are threadbare, I’ve not yet ventured into a Japanese clothes store, so don’t know my waist measurement. Though no one would confuse me for Gerard Depardieu, the Franco-Russian actor whose many starring roles have included a stint as Asterix’s famously portly sidekick Obelix, I easily fill my six-foot, one-inch frame.

On the terrace outside a large Tokyo shop during the Golden Week holidays. May 3, 2009.
AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu Tsuno

I’m not neurotic about my weight, though admit to being a little jealous of my Japanese friends. When we head out to an izakaya -- those awesome, food-serving bars -- it’s a blur of chopsticks and disappearing drinks. But somehow my companions always seem to retain their sparrow-like outlines. Take for example my buddy Taro. The 50-something cuts an enviably elegant figure. But a few months ago, even he got an Big Brother-like email telling him his waistline was 86 centimetres (not quite 34 inches) -- one centimetre foul of the law!

Businesses and local governments are supposedly meant to measure the waists of all workers aged between 40 and 74 during their annual medical checkup. The official limit is 85 cm (33.5 inches) for men, 90 cm (35.4 inches) for women.

In Japan today, the land of sumo and chubby buddhas, the government has set in stone who’s overweight and who’s not. In the email, Taro was given some fairly standard advice -- play sports, eat a balanced diet, monitor your weight etc. And make sure you drop a notch on your belt before your next visit.

Pulling at the lovehandles

OK, so you’re not going to prison for an extra pinch of flesh. The real pressure is on businesses. The government called on firms to trim the number of overweight workers by 10 percent in the law’s first four years and by 25 percent in 2015. Companies risk fines if they miss these targets.

Keizo Takemi, a vice-minister of health, undergoes a girth-measuring in his office. June 4, 2007.
AFP / Jiji Press

Officials are discussing adapting the law so that a waistline measurement is not the only metric. A health ministry official said authorities were currently discussing new standards, because recent research shows the relationship between girth and heart disease is more complex than initially thought. A report by the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), for example, found that a woman could still be classed as overweight, even if her waistline was around 80 cm -- 10 cm below the official limit, if her ratio of height to weight fell outside certain parameters. Go figure.

But the most talked about data are those from a health ministry study, which found obesity has been steadily growing in Japan over the past 15 years or so, especially in young men. In 1997, it was estimated that 23.3 percent of Japanese men aged 20 or more were overweight. A decade later, it’s 30.4 percent. Strangely, the opposite trend is seen in women, 20.2 percent of whom were overweight in 2007 compared to 20.9 percent a decade earlier. For people aged 60-70, the rate has hovered around 30 percent.

And according to the World Health Organization, the Japanese -- along with the Koreans -- remain among the least fat people in the world. I can believe it. As I wander the streets, it seems unusual to come across really large people. “If such a law existed in the US, there would not be enough prisons,” joked a rather plump American travelling through Tokyo.

American influence

Doctor Hiroyuki Hayashi has plenty to celebrate under the new rules. The doctor has run an elegant “anti-metabo” clinic since 2005 in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya neighbourhood. Each month, he sees about 600 clients, mainly women. “Yes, obesity is on the rise,” he says. He thinks this started just after the end of World War II under the occupation of US forces who brought with them their famous eating habits, including hamburgers, T-bone steaks and a certain brown and sugary carbonated beverage.

Curiously, it is in Okinawa, the island to the south of the Japanese archipelago that also houses a massive American military base, that Japan’s biggest residents live.

Information page from the Japanese ministry of health on the metabo law.

Hayashi isn’t convinced by the metabo law. “For me, it’s a failure because it’s not been effective,” he says, citing health ministry figures that show of the 52 million or so people aged between 40 and 74 who are meant to undergo annual exams, less than half do so, about 23 million. “Out of these people, a little more than four million are beyond the limits, so are given written recommendations. But only 12.3 percent of these people follow through on this medical advice.”

It’s hard to understand why so many Japanese manage to retain their thin physiques, given the amount of food they eat, the time they spend in bars and the ubiquitous presence of soda and snack vending machines.

If you go to a Japanese restaurant, chances are, you’ll tuck into numerous little dishes, including greasy tempuras washed down with draught beer, followed by chankonabe, a sort of giant stew that is served to help sumo wrestlers gain weight, and iced saki. To finish, a good helping of udon noodles and possibly some shochu, a sort of local whisky. So what’s the secret?

Fish, rice and green tea

According to a dietician, the traditional Japanese diet consists of large amounts of rice and fish, both of which are low in fat, a lot of green tea, which helps to burn fat. Plus mouthfuls arrive on the end of chopsticks, so can be smaller than the massive forkfuls that many in the West gulp down, meaning food is sometimes eaten at a slower speed and so is better digested.

Obesity is today a booming business opportunity. Barely an hour goes by on the home-shopping channels without some revolutionary new gizmo being touted, with claims it will help women tighten their love handles or give men “bar of chocolate” abs instead of a beer belly.

In these commercials, you see women yelping with glee and sighing “oooooh!” and “sugoii!” (awesome!) as they show off their trimmed-down bellies. The women measure just about everything, even around their calfs. Every centimetre of whittled body mass is greeted with a salvo of delighted squeals.

Inside a Tokyo McDonalds. April, 2006.
AFP PHOTO / Toshifumi Kitamura

There’s all manner of bizarre machines that will help you move this or shake that, or even send out little electric shocks, all promising to turn you from couch potato into endurance athlete. Other ads offer the latest miracle medicine, based on plants, shellfish, or even just tomatoes. Last February, a team from Kyoto University figured out that tomatoes contain useful substances for tackling metabolic disorders and fat. Since then, there’s been a run on the red fruit.

In Tokyo’s countless cabs, slipped into the seat-back pockets are little brochures showing before and after pictures from various anti-metabo clinics, especially that of Dr. Hayashi. At the DS clinic, it costs about 500,000 yen (5,000 euros) to lose 10 kilos in three months. That’s 500 euros per kilo. And there’s no question of getting a bulk discount.

A man sunbathes in a Tokyo park, August 1, 2007.
AFP PHOTO / Toshifumi Kitamura