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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Japanese keeping score on a weighty matter

LOS ANGELES — The overweight citizen has been taking a pounding of late. But it may be that the issue is being blown out of all proportion. For starters, both Japan and the United States have been in the news on the issue of citizens who are pulling too much of their own weight around town.

Japan now actually mandates official waistline measurements for citizens between the ages of 40 and 74. If the citizen measures more than the national guidelines (85 cm for males, and 90 cm for females), he or she is subjected to strict diet guidance and, if that doesn't produce the desired cutback, is forced to endure required diet and nutritional re-education. The annual measurements are administered by local governments and companies in conformance with recently enacted legislation.

In the U.S., by contrast, the government is not as directly involved — so far, at least. Various agencies do issue guidelines, produce a few public service announcements and push their boring little health pamphlets around that no one reads besides high school health teachers. That's about it.

The major cultural factor governing Americans' waistlines is vanity. And there is more than a fair amount of that around here. Expensive health clubs, for example, abound with members of indeterminate age who are so waiflike that they make storks look like redwood barns.

Another factor that could put the squeeze on our nation's fatties is the wallet. It turns out that some U.S. air carriers are thinking of weighing passengers just as they weigh luggage and charge the latter according to poundage. The cost of boarding as a passenger would thus be similarly calculated. With appropriately punitive scaling, ballet dancers and others who are lighter than air might even fly virtually free.

These days, U.S. airlines, to be sure, are sad sacks indeed. The soaring price of fuel and other economic issues are driving their managements to all sorts of insane ideas.

For the first three months of this year, U.S. airlines reported aggregate losses of $1.7 billion as crude oil prices almost doubled from a year ago. Certainly, there would be nothing illogical about pinning passenger fares to passenger weight. The air-freight business has always worked this way.

And anyone who has recently flown on a U.S. carrier has had the experience of being treated like a piece of excess baggage, anyway. Apparently, there is little profit in niceties, civility and courtesy.

Even so, my guess is that the fare-by-weight scheme has a fat chance of getting off the ground. Our American egalitarian and individualist culture probably wouldn't hear of it. Constitutionalists would argue (perhaps convincingly) that the "equal-protection clause" of the U.S. Constitution protects the heavyweight and the lightweight alike — were such a weighty issue ever to get to the Supreme Court.

Japan lives by a different civic religion from America. It generally emphasizes group norms more than individual rights. Since fattiness has been conclusively correlated with health problems, heavy citizens are viewed as levying an unacceptable burden on the costs of the nation's health care. From the Japanese perspective, obesity is positively shameful, reflecting a lack of respect for and responsibility to the larger society.

And so the government has set out the belt-tightening goal of reducing the amount of overweight citizens nationally by 10 percent in the next four years and 25 percent in the next seven years. Companies and local governments that fail to enforce the new standards will feel financial penalties. After all, diseases such as diabetes and strokes often come from being overweight, insists Japan's health ministry, cheerlessly.

In one respect you have to get a big kick out of Japan's peculiar ways. Except for the occasional sumo wrestler or Yakuza nightclub bouncer, how many really fat people do you see in Tokyo? Or on the tourist beaches of Hawaii's Waikiki?

In fact, whenever you think of the Japanese, frequently it's sushi and sashimi — thin, tender, delicious, almost lighter-than-air morsels of nutrition — that come to mind. When you think of America, it's cheeseburgers, perhaps even with strips of bacon inside a thick bun.

Yet, Japan wants to be way out in front of almost everyone regarding the health implications of being overweight. They take the view that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There is even talk of the creation of new fat-finding commissions to further the campaign.

It may be that they are playing the weighting game more wisely than anyone. Instead of waiting the problem out, they have selected to get the lead out. It's a health-care balancing act.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran journalist, is not a citizen of Japan. © 2008 Tom Plate

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