Mount Fuji

In Japan, fast food is fast becoming a health hazard 


(This article was first published in the Chicago Tribune of Oct. 14, 1990)

It's high noon and 15-year-old Mayumi Ikuno and her friends must make a choice. Do they want a Taco Time enchilada, a McDonald's Big Mac and fries, a five-piece lunch special from Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Domino's pizza?

The solution: all of the above.

"There are just too many good and tasty things to eat,'' Ikuno said as she and her friends spread out their feast at a trendy open-air food plaza in this Tokyo suburb. "So we share. That way we can eat everything."

"Eating everything" is exactly what prominent nutritionist Shinya Nishimaru and many of his colleagues say is wrong with today's Japanese.

Nishimaru said millions of affluent young people are committing suicide by forsaking traditional Japanese fare for Western fast food.

"It's like they are walking willingly into a new type of death chamber where they are being slowly killed," Nishimaru said.

So convinced is Nishimaru of his prognosis that he recently published a book advancing the theory that Japanese born after 1959 will be lucky to live to be 41.

That is ironic in a nation that for years has boasted the highest average longevity among industrialized nations: 82 years for women, 77 for men.

Nishimaru's "The 41 Years of Life Theory" has grabbed the attention of scientists and bureaucrats as well as parents.

"I call 1959 the year of the beginning of gluttony in Japan," said Nishimaru, 67, a former government agricultural official who now heads the private Food and Ecology Study Institute.

That year, he said, Japan's traditional low-fat diet of rice, fish, tofu, seaweed and fresh vegetables began an epic shift to foods such as cholesterol-rich beef and dairy products.

Also that year, Japan opted to pursue an "economy first" rather than a "people first" policy, Nishimaru added. Because of unusually long workdays and the rigorous education system, Japanese were forced to turn to "instant" foods.

Nishimaru said few Japanese under 25 have ever experienced ofukuro no aji — Mom's traditional cooking. With almost 60 percent of all wives and mothers working outside the home, it has been replaced by meikaa no aji, or food from a package.

Government studies show that today's family spends about 65 percent of its home food budget on pre-packaged processed foods (up from 30 percent in 1959) and that children eat half their meals in fast-food restaurants.

The result, a recent Health Ministry study said, is that a record 15 percent of children are seriously overweight and cases of morbid obesity are increasing at unprecedented rates.

"Just 10 years ago morbid obesity cases were very rare in Japan, but no longer," said Dr. Makoto Ohno of the Jikei University School of Medicine. “And increasing numbers of children are showing signs of diabetes and heart disease.”

Overweight children, once an anomaly, are a common sight, especially in crowded urban centers, which are woefully lacking in public outdoor recreational facilities.

"There is no way for children to burn up calories, because they are always in the classroom, playing video games or eating," said junior high school teacher Michi Hirayama. "They are under constant pressure, and eating junk food has become a way of relieving it."

Ironically, while Western societies have begun to show interest in Japanese foods, a recent study by Japan's Food Industry Center revealed that not one traditional dish is ranked in the top 10 food choices of junior high students.

Instead, they preferred, in order, French fries, instant noodles, fried chicken, Chinese corn soup, hamburgers, hamburger steak, pizza, gyoza (fried Chinese dumplings stuffed with minced pork), spaghetti and Korean barbecued beef.

But even more shocking to nutritionists was a report two months ago by professor Takeo Masaki of the Nippon College of Physical Education that revealed a steady deterioration in youngsters' health.

After scrutinizing 2,660 elementary and high schools nationwide, he found that 90.8 percent suffered from allergies — up from 72 percent in 1978.

Over the same period, the number of those suffering from skin problems such as rashes increased to 76.4 percent from 68 percent; children suffering from chronic fatigue grew to 83.8 percent from 75 percent; those with weak spines and back muscles increased to 68.7 percent from 44 percent.

Elementary school pupils reporting lower back pain jumped to 16.9 percent from 1 percent, and 9 percent of all high school students suffered from diabetes, compared to just 1 percent in 1978.

The report so stunned the Education Ministry that it has ordered a three-year nationwide survey of the health of all school-age children.

Editor's noteRonald E. Yates launched his professional career with a BSJ (Bachelor of Science in Journalism) from the University of Kansas back in 1969. Apart from Japan, where he served as Tokyo bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1977, and once again from 1985 to 1992, his colorful and sometimes hazardous life as a foreign correspondent has taken him to Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, as well as Mexico, and various hot spots in Central and South America.

Besides penning something like 3,000 articles over the years, he has authored and co-authored several books, perhaps the best known of which is The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with a Japanese Soul — the fascinating story of how a centuries-old Japanese soy sauce maker steeped in tradition embraced modern technology and marketing methods in order to win success in the tough U.S. market.

From 2003 until his retirement in 2009, Prof. Yates served as Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, which includes the Department of Journalism he previously headed. I would like to express my sincere thanks to him for granting permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.