Why are Japanese people so skinny?

Is there more to skinny Japanese people than just their diet?

By 5 min read

They eat rice, ramen, and udon. Carbohydrates make us fat, but why are Japanese are still so slim? My American friends tell me it’s “their” genes but I don’t agree with that. Within the first two years of moving to the States, I had gained a lot of weight because of sudden change in my diet and lifestyle.

So I believe that it is more about the lifestyle that is helping Japanese people stay slim. In this article, I want to explore Japanese eating habit, lifestyle and social culture that prevent most of Japanese from becoming overweight. Japanese are known for their high life expectancy and if there is something we can learn from them, we can certainly apply that to our current lifestyle.

Long commute to school and work

Japanese people take the train everyday to go to school or work, which means they do a lot of walking. Walk to the station, walk up and down the stairs, walk to work or school. During rush hour, trains are packed so they usually don’t even get to sit down and as soon as they get off the train, they have to walk to their final destination. They usually take the exact same route so it is not uncommon for Japanese people to spend nearly 1-2 hours per day.

It is also common for Japanese students or employees to ride a bicycle to school or work. When I was in high school, I rode my bike for 45 minutes per way to school. That alone was a great exercise and I still had a full schedule and PE class once a day that made me run 8 kilometers in the afternoon.

Food Portion

My parents who live in Japan visited me a year or so ago, and they were shocked to see the food portions served in restaurants in the US. Japanese food portions are usually small and typically many restaurants don’t allow “to go” option, so they serve just the right portion for one person only.

I believe that this is a significant factor that helps Japanese people remain skinny. In the US, they serve a huge plate and huge refillable large size drink. When you are enjoying your dinner with your friends, it is so easy to overeat because you don’t want to waste the food and the food is available!

Peer Pressure

Since we don’t see many overweight people in Japan, overweight people tend to stand out and can feel uncomfortable due to the silent pressure from their peers. Sometimes they are not so silent. My Japanese friends often remind me about the weight gain whenever I see them. It is very rude to talk about the weight in America and unless I bring that up, nobody tells me that I’ve put on some weight. But Japanese are pretty blunt.

I went to get a massage in Osaka a few years ago, and the masseuse who was giving me massage told me “this must be tough for you.” I knew exactly what she was talking about because my weight was at its peak. “I live in America and just visiting..” I told her. She then went on to ask me about the diet, exercise..basically telling me that I was fat! I was embarrassed so I worked hard to shed some pounds right after that massage.

Shopping for large sizes in Japan.

In America, I don’t feel the urge to work on losing weight because there are lots of stores that carry large dresses, underwear and plus size clothing. In Japan, even large is equivalent to medium in America. They do have plus size sections in special department stores but it is inconvenient that you can’t find your size in a regular department store.

Even Japanese 24-hour convenience stores such as 7-11 sell emergency shirts and underwear but these are usually too small if you are overweight. This really motivates Japanese people to keep track of their weight because gaining weight can be an inconvenience when shopping.

Preventive Medicine

Because of the influence of American fast food culture, obesity is slowly becoming to be an epidemic in Japan. My father is a Japanese corporate salaryman and he has to go through a series of rigorous physical exams to make sure that he is healthy. It was a routine test and many Japanese schools implement the same rules so the health system in Japan definitely make people more conscious of their weight.

If you’re overweight the last thing you want is for your coworkers to find out what your dress size is.

Another thing that I recently learned is that Japan has a more strict BMI scale. BMI stands for body mass index. In the US, normal weight is between 18.5-24.9 BMI and overweight is considered a BMI of 25-29.9 and obesity is a BMI of 30 or greater. However, in Japan, overweight starts at a BMI of 23.0 and there are three or four different type of obesity and the criteria is much more strict than the one in the US.


There are a number of reasons that explain why Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates among the developed countries. Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke. Obesity is reversible but left untreated, it can spiral out of control.

Although I still drive to work here in America, I can take a walk during lunch break and try to cook healthy Japanese food for dinner. There are many things that we can do to keep our weight under control and we can learn a lot from the Japanese lifestyle.

  • Jimbo says:

    I agree Japanese women are probably unhealthy small. My second trip to Japan I was set up on a blind date, and I am a 6 foot tall muscular woolen man. The little girl said she was 22 years old (much younger than I) but she looked about 14. When we had sex I literally tore her labia. She screamed spool loud, I mean fuckinloud as hell, I had to stop pumping her bloody fund to shut her up. I choked her out, but in the end she never regained consciousness. She bled out! I killed her with my dick. It took 2 days of vigorous scrubbing to get the smell off my penis. The married Korean lady I face fuck for a cum dumpster started to complain… so I drowned her with a huge load of jizz. Just kidding! I used my engorged shaft and I urinated into her lungs…

  • claudiagold says:

    I’m traveling in Japan right now and despite the fact that I am from the US, I am finding that the portions in Japan are too big from me. I have been surprised by some of the giant bowls of noodle soup and multi-course meals with many different items that I have been served here. I live in San Francisco and I am used to eating MUCH smaller portion sizes there. Additionally, I am used to eating light things like green salads for many of my meals at home. Here in Japan, all the fish, pickled vegetables, and other richer foods than I am used to make it very hard for me to finish my meals, which can be embarrassing because I don’t want the restaurants to think that I dislike their food. (I am normal weight for the US but bigger than your average Japanese person. I have not eaten any fast food, soda, or processed foods in over 10 years, which is typical in SF unlike the rest of the US.) Any ideas why I am experiencing this? Anyone else here who can relate?

  • juliathemechanic says:

    This is a great article and very true, I think. I’ve just returned from Japan two days ago and can vouch for the smaller food portions. The first thing that I noticed about Japan is that food and drink are EVERYWHERE. There are drink machines on many street corners, extensive restaurant networks in subways, office buildings, train stations, etc. The food quality is far superior to what is available in America. Meals are centered around protein with many vegetables added, plus a serving of rice or noodles. There are fewer fast food restaurants, though there is a much nicer McDonalds and the like. Even they seem to have higher quality food than is available in the states. It’s common for meals to come in courses, so you have a very small first course, which might be miso soup, then maybe 2 oz. of pickled vegetables, then some rice and fish (roughly 4 oz.) then some tea. I never felt too full but I never felt hungry. They definitely weren’t serving me too many carbs.

    In America I walk 5 or more miles per day, but I live in a city with very flat terrain. In Japan there is absolutely no place to sit down unless you’re eating dinner or waiting for a train, so standing and walking while carrying bags is what people do most. If you take the subway you’ll find yourself walking, climbing stairs, walking some more, standing for half an hour on the train, making a connection to another train and then walking many blocks to your destination. When I glanced at my fitbit at the end of the night in Tokyo I was shocked to find that though I had only walked about 6 miles, I had climbed the equivalent of 32 flights of stairs. And it felt like it! I saw very, very few overweight people in either Tokyo or Kyoto. A lot of people bicycle, too.

  • Marie F says:

    It’s gotta be the gut flora. How can I be genetically programmed for skinny (both parents), and completely struggle every time I’m in Japan?! It’s impossible, no matter what I do, literally since high school. My full-blood Japanese has done nothing to help with my weight problem. Including running.

  • James Paul says:

    I think a lot of Japanese women are a little too skinny. Though I think its mostly about exercise in daily lives, diet, kinds of food eaten, and genetics…. Though I started eating rice 3 times a day when my ex wife moved in with me and I started putting on weight… hence the genetics part… in America people will drive around a parking lot for 2 hours to part 10 feet or 2 meters closer to the front door… the real question is probably why are Americans getting so fat…..

    • Crystal says:

      You were likely eating way too much rice, or just “adding” more food instead of substituting the bread for rice or what not. Japanese portions aren’t “carb-heavy” at all, even if they’re predominantly carb-centered (veggies and rice). American portions are just way too big, which accustoms Americans to eating those large portions for every meal.

  • Sarah Harkey says:

    At the bottom of this post I have an ad for Domino’s Pizza, “From now til July 6th, all large pizzas are 50% off!”… just thought it was funny, haha XD

  • Bradley Tyson says:

    I have had many trips to Japan as a toyota employee and found that I loose weight every time in a 2-3 week trip. My girlfriend is japanese and we eat mostly japanese food here in the US but I don’t loose weight. I totally agree that the amount of energy used to get to and from work in Japan probably has a lot to do with it but I found during my trips that the food portions are very large in Japan compared to what I eat in the US and cheaper. With that said I’m still able to loose weight. The main difference from what I can tell us the beverages that consume in both countries. In the US I will drink water and green with meals but I am also very guilty of drinking pop and sweet black tea. In Japan it’s basically green tea or water with every meal and of course there is plenty of soda machines but the options there seem to be a little healthier than US options. When I concentrate on only drinking water and green tea with meals in US I find that I am able to shed a few pounds. I’m not fat at all but I usually carry about 5 pounds of excess weight. So in summary I believe that calorie intake from drinks has a lot to do with this difference. I can also watch my girlfriend do the same who has the “japanese ” genes and if she drinks green tea and water she stays very thin but when she gets in a habit of sweet tea or soda I can see a difference.

  • Joanna Gough says:

    I was commenting on a Harper’s Bazaar post a few days ago about how Fashion brands are catering to the “plus size” market of America. And i said : I pity them to be exploited this way. And women (all american) immediately jumped on me saying that It’s OK to be plus size and how my comment is fat shaming and etc. – I’m more surprised that they enjoy being fat than to lose the weight and be healthy.

    This is a highly accurate article with excellent details of how culture is a barrier. Will be sharing it much 🙂

  • Yamagishi Ann says:

    Nice article Yumi!

  • a huang says:

    yumi: from ur profile pic, i can’t ever imagine u “fat.” …anyway, i believe that education is the key to healthy eating, especially in regards to the portions, ingredients and time we eat.

  • Pete Wagner says:

    The biggest difference is in the content purity of the food. Americans eat toxic junk in comparison, which cannot be as easily metabolized.

    • juliathemechanic says:

      I think there is a lot to what you say. The food quality was far superior. Japan doesn’t allow the types of preservatives and artificial colorings in their foods that America does and almost everything you buy from the store will go bad in a few days. The Japanese are very competitive in their businesses and the chefs want to be able to say that they have the finest fish from the fish market, the freshest produce from the farms, the best cuts of Kobe beef. They build a reputation with locals and take their reputations very seriously. I went to an Uni restaurant in the Tokyo train station and was pleasantly surprised to find that the quality of uni served there was on par with a very nice, much pricier US restaurant I go to on special occasions. And my meal cost the equivalent of $10 US.

    • shonangreg says:

      How do you get fat from food that can’t be metabolized? If your body can’t digest it, then it just passes through. Eat a kilogram of woodchips for a demonstration.

      • juliathemechanic says:

        Because it dysregulates your hormones. If your hormones are out of whack you will not process your food, or much of anything else, properly. One of the surest ways to disrupt your hormonal balance is to eat too much sugar, and food in the US is chock full of sugar. This is what metabolic syndrome is – hormone dysregulation. Try eating a diet of wood chips for a while and see how your body will punish you!

      • James Paul says:

        Its the crap we put in our food… vegetables should not stay fresh for 2 months in the fridge…. they certainly do not in Japan….

  • Becks says:

    Is that true? Does that mean if I go to Japan next year I will be frowned by Japanese people in general?

    • shonangreg says:

      Americans and some other Westerners are almost expected to be fat. So, you won’t be “frowned upon”, I think.

      • James Paul says:

        Yeah just say “Sorry im a gaijin!!!” Foreigners are treated pretty well in Japan and unless you speak Japanese you wont notice what they are saying anyways….

  • Kyaw Montana says:

    More physical activity, smaller portions, and social pressure are key factors as mentioned. imo, another factor is Japan’s geography and arable land which dictate the nature of crop production. The land obviates large scale mechanized calorie crop production such as corn, wheat, and soybean in the US. Cheap calories = fat citizens. The Japanese may have a comparatively more costly yet more nutritious diet; both would tend to reduce consumption.

  • André Filipe Nunes Oliveira says:

    Carbohydrates don’t make you fat. Fat makes you fat. There are plenty of people eating high-carb no-fat diets that look (and feel) absolutely amazing. Check Youtube.

    The rest of the article is spot-on. Nice write-up.

    • juliathemechanic says:

      Not true. Check the dietetics research. Ignore YouTube. The healthiest diets in the world are the Mediterranean, Japanese and Korean diets. Plenty of good quality fat, lots of vegetables, moderate fruit, moderate carbs, moderate exercise. Not exercising enough and eating sugar makes you fat. Having metabolic syndrome and pre-diabetes keeps you fat.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      thank you Andre ^_^

    • DJ Rose says:

      Not entirely true. The quality of the carbohydrates and fat that you eat are what determine your health. Eating white rice and tonkatsu is not even comparable to eating brown rice with salmon in terms of health benefits. Even though tonkatsu has less overall fat than salmon, it has tons of saturated fat and none of the Omega-3’s that salmon has. Additionally, brown rice is infinitely more beneficial than white rice, even though they are virtually identical in carbohydrate count. Brown rice has tons of fibre, which is what makes it the favorable choice over white rice.

      The Japanese are skinny because of their portions and because of the fact that they have spent generations eating white rice.

  • Jody Franks says:

    Great points Yumi. I totally agree with you!

  • Jody Franks says:

    Great points Yumi. I totally agree with you!



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