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Not New News, But Still Unbelievable: (No) Big in Japan?

August 10, 2011

In 2009, Young Turks did a segment where they insist that it is “illegal to be overweight in Japan.” Now, my mother is always commenting that she never sees any “fat Asian people” so this definitely caught my attention as to a possible explanation (note: what I just said is completely false).

But really? Illegal? Yes, they insist, there are “consequences in Japan if you do not meet certain weight requirements” because of a law put into place in 2008. The standards for healthy weight in Japan are as follows:

Waistline (measured yearly by employer)= for Males: 33.5 inches; for Females: 35.4 inches

And the consequences?

–Must undergo counseling

–Companies must reduce number of overweight people or face an increase in payment to health insurance companies (“by 10 percent by 2012 and 25 percent by 2015”)

And even though the statistic is put out that “35% of Americans are obese, while 5% of Japanese are obese” and the “average waistline for a male in the United States is 39 inches,” the himself overweight Young Turk is horrified at the  “unrealistic expectations” put forth by the Japanese government and how the government should not get so hyper-involved in the health of its people.

I decided to google “illegal overweight Japan” to find out more information on my own and found an interesting article from the Global Post about this issue. Essentially, what is being called the “metabo law” (which I’ll explain below) “aims to save money by heading off health risks related to obesity.” So why metabo?

In Japan, already the slimmest industrialized nation, people are fighting fat to ward off dreaded metabolic syndrome and comply with a government-imposed waistline standard. Metabolic syndrome, known here simply as “metabo,” is a combination of health risks, including stomach flab, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, that can lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

It’s obviously important to focus on health, but why with a waistline standard?

“Due to the check up, there is increased public awareness on the issue of obesity and metabolic syndrome,” said James Kondo, president of the Health Policy Institute Japan, an independent think tank. “Since fighting obesity is a habit underlined by heightened awareness, this is a good thing. The program is also revolutionary in that incentivizes [companies] to reduce obesity.”

Though the health exams for metabolic syndrome factor in blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, weight and smoking, waist size is the most critical element in the Japanese law — and perhaps the most humiliating.

Agreed. The beginning of that article focuses on a woman who went on a crash diet just to avoid being over the required measurement. Can you imagine having your waist measured in front of all your coworkers, and then having it on your head that the company has had to pay an increased health insurance rate due to your weight? Ugh. Why can’t the focus actually be on health, and promote incentives instead of humiliation?

Most importantly though, will my all-time favorite Alphaville song “Big in Japan” soon be illegal too? I shudder at the mere thought.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Fedora permalink
    August 10, 2011 3:29 pm

    Japan is also a country where companies have group calisthenics at work though! So at least Japan is approaching the health issues from all angles- exercise to counseling. And it just boils down to costs in the end. If you are self employed, I bet you can have all the tempura you want. I loved the mans reaction and outrage at the thought of being subjected to these laws.

  2. jenmarie permalink
    August 10, 2011 11:26 pm

    The idea of getting measured and/or weighed in front of co-workers is definitely unsettling…size is just one of many measurements used to gauge the level of one’s health. At least they’re also considering blood-pressure and cholesterol levels when judging who needs help lowering health risks. I imagine that weight gets targeted above all the others because its the easiest/fastest to measure. Despite the insensitivity of the Japanese approach, there are some important lessons our country can take away from this. By holding companies accountable for the health of their employees, preventative care becomes a serious priority. Unfortunately, American health insurance companies seem to LOVE sick people…they make a ton more money on chronically ill patients than healthy ones. Until our system reexamines its ethics in a real way, I doubt we’ll see the kind of progressive thinking we need to curb obesity in this country.

  3. Hugh permalink
    August 11, 2011 4:51 am

    Sorry, I can’t agree about “health insurance companies seem to LOVE sick people…they make a ton more money on chronically ill patients than healthy ones”. When healthy people pay health insurance premiums and do not make claims because they do not incur costs, the insurance company KEEPS THE MONEY, and does not pay out anything. While it may be true that they routinely shortchange providers by setting up unrealistic reimbursement rates and keep the difference between what they should pay and what they actually do pay, it is still more profitable for them never to pay out a single penny on behalf of “healthy” people who do not cause them any expense at all. I put “quotes” around “healthy” because it is not so much actually healthy people who the insurance companies LOVE, it is simply those who do not go to doctors or other health care providers, and simply do not make claims that the insurance company would have to make some sort of payment on. The customers they dream of having forever would be those who just pay the premiums, make no claims, and live virtually forever. Try being sick [as we all sometimes are] and see how much your insurance company “LOVES” you. You know what the real answer to this is: figure out what it takes for you to get into a healthy lifestyle on your own, and do what you need to do to stay out of the insurance viper pit. You will bypass the system, more likely keep your sanity [which will itself help you keep more healthy] and feel better physically and emotionally as well.

    • jenmarie permalink
      August 11, 2011 4:08 pm

      You are absolutely right…what I should have said is that it’s pharmaceutical companies that seem happy to keep Americans sick. Although I understand too little about the complex relationship between the pharmaceutical industry, our government, and the health care system as a whole, it’s always seemed deeply corrupt. In what world should Pfizer be raking in billions of dollars? If we started to live in a way that avoided diabetes, heart disease, diet-related cancers, high-blood pressure and cholesterol, those billions would start to dry up…and yes, another fantastic result is that we could bypass health insurance system. What I’ve never been able to understand is why American health insurance companies still seem so loathe to cover preventative medicine…why won’t they cover nutrition counseling, alternative medicines, and methods to promote mental/emotional health. I’m really naive in this area, but wouldn’t it be cheaper for an insurance company to pay for a massage or acupuncture once or twice a month than a lifetime of anti-anxiety drugs? I know I’m seriously oversimplifying, but it still seems that those in power could care less about REAL health. The best thing to do is exactly what you said, take matters into our own hands and avoid a system that is so very very broken.

  4. sexy curmudgeon permalink
    August 13, 2011 4:15 pm

    I also find it interesting that you point out this system is based on humiliation: humiliation is actually a huge part of Japanese culture in general and the corporate culture specifically. The importance of “saving face” and of formal procedures of decorum and respect is infinitely greater than it is in many western nations. This does raise an interesting question, though – do societies need to play on their own weaknesses in order to enforce physical fitness and well being? Is there no society that values healthiness in body and mind highly enough to make it a motivating factor on its own? What does this say about human nature?

  5. Wills permalink
    August 17, 2011 3:06 am

    Since every society sets up its own standards which anyone who wants to become/be a member of, what this says about human nature is that it is more effective to “control” humans through negative means than positive. We saw a documentary the other week about a gentle horse-trainer who has figured out what horses want and need [actually not so different from humans] and can coax out of a reluctant beast a desire to actually cooperate and get along with a dominant human — and does it with extraordinary patience and kindness [nonetheless very firmly but kindly]. RARE! For hundreds of years horses have been “broken” by brutal force, but here is one guy who appeals to the innermost feelings of a wide beast, and successfully brings it into the domesticated [socialization] world. ONE GUY! So think back about what you learned in history, religion, other venues of human interaction, and ask yourself: were people treated with gentleness, caring, respect in order to get them to express from the inside their deepest desires to join a group, or were they “forced” through war, conquest, enslavement, brutality, etc., to not only join a group but in most cases to maintain their membership in that social entity [Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Khaddafi, George W Bush, etc]. Scared people are kept in a state of destabilization that permits the authorities to control them since they are permitted so little time to ponder what freedom really means. Health in mind and body is a truly freeing state, and the mind-controlling powers even in today’s societies know in a Machiavellian way that if they want to keep power they have to do whatever they have to do to keep their subjects subjugated. Is the diet industry any different? Who do you think is behind the virtually universal iconization of the size 0 woman? Yes, it is more effective to control by force and shame than kindness. This is due simply to “human nature”. Free thinkers have never been accepted by organized societies.


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