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Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009
Putting the lie to the health of Japanese bodies
By KAORI SHOJI
After decades of paying little attention to the needs of their bodies, the Japanese seem to be rediscovering themselves as flesh-and-blood beings who require proper physical care in order to lead happy and satisfying lives.
Thirty years ago, in the rush to economic prosperity, people didn't bother much about their health condition. Men in particular drank, smoked and slept on eki no benchi (駅のベンチ, train station benches) when they were too sloshed to catch the shūden (終電, last train) home. Now no urban station will allow passengers to bed down for the night — on bench or platform. And besides, far fewer people drink themselves into oblivion anymore.
Back in the late 1970s to mid '80s, my father always had a bottle of igusuri (胃薬, stomach pills) stashed in his briefcase — it was his antidote to everything from depression to karō (過労, excessive fatigue) brought on by 16-hour work days. He wasn't the only one — back then most Japanese company workers had little or no knowledge of the workings of the body and were too busy to care.
That same generation have now become avid marathon runners, golfers and gym addicts. Kenkō otaku (健康オタク, health-obsessives) is a phrase often used to describe these men. Gone is the time when they started the day with a cigarette and shibucha (渋茶, steeped, bitter tea). Now they are more likely to reach for prune juice and granola. Antiaging is the top item on their agenda, and supplements and vitamins rack up huge sales even in the midst of this "mizou no fukeiki (未曾有の不景気, the worst recession ever)."
Women have always paid attention to their looks — regardless of war, viruses or economic downfall. The latest fad, however, is "uchigawa kara kirei ninaru" (内側からきれいになる, being beautiful from the inside) which, to sum up in one short word, would be asedashi (汗だし, releasing sweat). No wonder so many ganbanyoku (岩盤浴, steamed bath spas) salons have sprouted across the nation.
For many Japanese men and women, regard for physical fitness is more than skin deep. Besides the sense that they have neglected their bodies, there is also an ingrained inferiority complex about the Japanese physique. The two words they dread most are metabo (メタボ, taken from "metabolic syndrome" and now used to describe anyone who is overweight) and hinsō (貧相 shabbily skinny) — and many believe that a coveted ii karada (いいカラダ, well-toned body) can only be attained after long, grueling hours of training and a strict, high-protein diet. "Tairyoku wo tsukete shibō wo herasu" (体力をつけて脂肪を減らす, increase the body's strength and get rid of the flab): We hear this slogan or its equivalent 24/7.
The bad news is that Japan is riddled with bad genes, and many Japanese believe that their tairyoku (体力, physical strength) flatlines after the age 20, while flab accumulates on thin, sukasuka (すかすか, hollow or full of holes) bones. Japanese may live longer than most, but generally speaking our later years could hardly be described as happily fit.
"Nihonjin wa karadaga warui" (日本人は身体が悪い, the Japanese have bad bodies) was an oft-repeated phrase spoken by Meiji Era (1868-1912) academics and politicians required to travel overseas and emulate the ways of the West. Soseki Natsume (1867-1916), one of this country's literary treasures, wrote about how bad his own body was in his 1905 book "The Tower of London" (倫敦塔), which describes two years he spent in the U.K. There's a passage about him looking into a full-length mirror and wanting to kill himself out of sheer (physical) shame. He goes on to talk about how flat, graceless and unattractively thin his countrymen were compared with most Europeans.
Soseki (like most Japanese men) was also plagued by a sensitive stomach and was apt to subsist on kayu (粥, rice porridge) and umeboshi (梅干し, salted and pickled plums), thereby doing further damage by undernourishing his system. Ultimately, though, Soseki's intellect overrode his concerns for the body; he believed that a man should live for his work and the body should be a mere appendage to this aim.
For a long time, Japanese lived by a similar creed — to pay attention to one's body or to talk about beautifying it was taboo. Today, people hardly talk about anything else. Get two Japanese over 35 on a bench and the conversation is apt to turn physical — or rather, to reports on various deficiencies. We've finally discovered the karada (カラダ, body). Now if only we can relax and feel good about it too.