Where Super-Thin is Still In: Attitudes to Body Image in Japan

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Photo by Chubbiness(チャビネス)@punicoproject

Over a meal with my friend Kaori, she looks at the small dessert that comes with her lunch set and sighs. “I shouldn’t eat it. I really do need to lose some weight.” I can’t for the life of me understand why. Stylishly dressed with a fashionable haircut and immaculate gel manicure, Kaori is one of the most attractive women I know.

“I read that the average weight for Japanese women in my age group is 55 kg and I’m (her voice drops to a whisper) 56.5! I really would love to get under 55 kg.” She allows herself no leeway for being several centimeters taller than the average woman in Japan.

Kaori is no image-conscious 20-something, trying out the latest diet fads — she’s the working mother of two teenagers in her 40s. She isn’t alone.

Underweight women on the rise

According to the data from the Health Ministry’s annual national surveys on health and nutrition, underweight Japanese women in their 20s, 30s and 40s have been increasing.

According to the data from the Health Ministry’s annual national surveys on health and nutrition, underweight Japanese women in their 20s, 30s and 40s have been increasing.

Using Body Mass Index (BMI) as a gauge, the number of Japanese women in their 20s who are too thin (BMI under 18.5), far exceeds those that fall into the overweight range (BMI over 25).

Compared to the many Western countries coping with rising obesity levels, this might seem like an enviable position, and as a nation, Japanese people naturally tend to be on the slender side. However, those who maintain their weight at unnaturally low levels could face health risks down the line.

Locomotive syndrome is a condition affecting mobility, due to the weakening of bones, joints, muscles and nerves. People who are underweight are just as much at risk of those carrying too much weight. If ignored, locomotive syndrome could eventually mean a need for constant nursing care—bad news in a rapidly aging society with record longevity.

Late bloomer?

Curves Japan is the local version of an international fitness franchise aimed at women and promoting strength training. It has proved particularly popular with the senior market here.

“The difference between healthy life expectancy and total life expectancy for (Japanese) women is 12 years. Maintaining muscle strength is a key for prolonging healthy life expectancy,” says Tomoko Katagiri of Curves Japan’s PR Department.

Younger, women however, seem more inclined to focus on dieting than exercise. According to the aforementioned government survey, only 10% of Japanese women in their 20s and 30s engage in regular exercise. This was the lowest among all the age groups for women.

“Fat” fights back

These trends are probably not surprising when the media promotes a culture populated with kawaii idols with proportions that look more like prepubescent children than adult women. As for muscles—forget it!

Speaking of the media, the terms pocchari girl or marshmallow girl made a splash a few years back, with the advent of La Farfa, Japan’s first fashion magazine for “chubby girls”. These curvy models, however, would still fall at the small end of the fashion sizing range in Western countries.

A post shared by la farfa (@lafarfa.official) on

These curvy models, however, would still fall at the small end of the fashion sizing range in Western countries.

As for women who are definitely overweight by anybody’s standards, they are generally relegated to the role of comic buffoons by the media, and are the frequent target of teasing on TV variety shows.

What about men?

Japanese men don’t feel quite the same pressure to maintain a low body weight. The Health Ministry’s figures show that overweight men far exceed the numbers who are underweight in every age category. Even so, fashion trends for young men gravitated towards the skinny side about 10 years ago, perhaps in line with the rise of the soushoku danshi or “herbivore men”. These young guys about town eschewed the aggressive, domineering male image, adopting instead a more androgynous look with tight fashions and impeccable grooming. Working out was not part of the package.

The pendulum seems to have swung back a little bit now with hoso macho (muscular but lean) emerging as a popular look.

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 Hidetoshi Nishijima is said to embody the hoso macho look that many guys aim for.

Kazu Tsuruta, a former bodybuilder who represented Japan at the international level, now operates a gym in Tokyo, with clients ranging from professional athletes to average Joes trying to lose their middle age paunch. “I think the popularity of Japanese actors starring in overseas movies, such as Ken Watanabe, helped the ‘muscular Japanese’ look gain acceptance. Even so, younger guys still want to look slim,” says Tsuruta.

“In fact, most younger guys don’t even workout. Maybe they are too busy at work, maybe they don’t want to pay for a gym if they can’t go regularly, or maybe they just assume they’re OK if they aren’t overweight. Then when they hit middle age they suddenly realize they haven’t been taking care of themselves.”

Kaori’s husband can be included among that number. “He’s worried lately about becoming metabo (overweight) from all the business dinners and drinking he has to do with clients, so he signed up with a local gym,” Kaori reports, as she finishes off the last bite of her dessert. “All I can say is, good luck to that.”

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