The Japanese appreciation of food

This is a thought that my dear friend Lisa’s sister, Erika, brought to my attention and it’s been making its impression on the crevices of my brain ever since.

I had always taken note of the fact that the Japanese have a huge respect for their food. It’s presented well, it’s often healthy and the portions are well-thought out. The first time this struck me was when I first visited the States at the tender age of 11. We were in Vegas and I saw a teenage boy with an ice cream the size of my arse. I could have comfortably sat in his ice cream cup and easily accommodate my little sister aswell (which shows how big it was because at that age I hated sharing anything with the little sis). I had spotted the best thing to have ever graced my visual senses. I had to have one.

At the age of 11 you only see the icecream. You don’t see the consequences of such indulgent habits in the form of the spotty-faced fattie clutching the icrecream eating himself towards diabetes type 7.

I ordered a medium mint icecream with crushed M&Ms; and was lulled into a peaceful frozen creamy heavenly state of munching for all of five minutes.

It was too sweet. My 11 year old taste buds had hit a sugar overload and given up on me. So the inevitable happened…


This was the moment I realised that almost every meal that had been put in front of me on this trip had been taken back to the kitchen only half eaten. It wasn’t because I was a kid that I couldn’t finish my meals, I was supposed to be growing, after all. It was because the portions were gargantuan. To top it off, the food wasn’t tasty enough for me to want to engage in any further than usual munching of it.

In Japan, the portions, as I mentioned above, are just big enough for you to feel satisfied rather than stuffed. The joy of being satisfied rather than saturated is that you can look back on your food with nostalgia and fondness rather than curse it for making you feel like you’ve just fast forwarded to the third trimester of pregnancy. When you’re stuffed, you almost resent the food that got you to this level of discomfort. You’ll leave a restaurant saying, “wow, I’m SOOO full,” rather than, “oh my, didn’t that tuna just melt in your mouth?”. Tuna melting in your mouth is supposed to be a positive comment, just so you know.

It’s not just after the meal, but also during the meal that the food is showered in praise. All throughout a gastronomic experience the average Japanese person will make 10-15 appreciative onomatopoeic noises.

“Mmmmmmm, ooooooooo, ahhhhhh”…

Followed by…

“kore oishiiiiii!” or “kore yabai, tabetemi!!” (“this is delicious!” or “This is unbelievable, try it!”)

The hara hachibunnme (80% full) way of life means that food is meant to be enjoyed; there is just enough in front of you to allow you to enjoy every mouthful rather than so much that your meal becomes boring and monotonous.

1000 things about Japan can vouch for me on this one. She also mentions the Japanese past time of trying to eat 30 different things each day. If the ideal way to balance your diet is to have 30 different components to your daily food intake, then your portions have to be small or you’ll balloon to the size of Godzilla in no time. Again, this shows how the Japanese like to savour their food and enjoy a variety of flavours and health benefits rather than shovel down a barrel full of the same tasteless rubbish a la sausage and mash.

I think there is an inverse correlation between the level of real enjoyment one derives from food and their waistlines. The more you respect and appreciate each and every mouthful, the more likely you are to naturally seek food that satisfies and benefits your mind and body.

On a final note, I also think that the Japanese have a more practical approach to food as well.
When I moved to England one of the things that struck me was people’s willingness to just throw away their leftovers. I had always been taught to try and eat as much as I can and that it’s particularly rude to leave rice because there was a scarcity during WW2 and we have to be grateful for the current abundance. If I cook too much food, I portion it and freeze it. What I saw some people do is eat as much as they can and then bin the rest because it was no longer quite a portion. For me this is verging on blasphemy; not only because I love food and not because I’m cheap, but because I just can’t treat food like that. When I do have to throw something away because it’s been in my fridge for too long, I feel a huge pang of guilt and vow not to overbuy next time.

How do people regard food in your country? What do you think is a healthy attitude to have towards food?

Chubby in Japan, Tiny in England.

I know that the politically correct thing to say on the topic of women’s shapes is that “all women, no matter what shape and size they are, are beautiful in their own way.”

While this is true so long as the woman in question is healthy, my problem is that I have two contradicting views to address the notion of the “ideal figure” from.

In Japan, as anyone with any knowledge of the country will have noticed, people tend to be “naturally” slim. By slim I don’t mean a UK size 8, I mean a UK size 4 or 6. I also use the term “naturally” rather loosely because it’s becoming increasingly hard to tell the difference between a slim lady and a starved one.

As an article in the Washington Post points out:

“Japanese women are outstandingly tense and critical of each other,” said Watanabe, who has spent 34 years treating women with eating disorders. “There is a pervasive habit among women to monitor each other with a serious sharp eye to see what kind of slimness they have.”

Apparently, while the rest of the world’s waistline is expanding, the Japanese are whittling themselves down to near tooth-pick size by means of intense rivalry. The sentiment Japanese women have towards each other seems to mirror that of Italian women. Weight is a topic open for debate and it’s not rude in either country to announce that you feel your friend has gained weight… to her face.

My mother is a slim lady, always has been. She often finds herself being told she is slim by women who are, ironically, verging on being anorexic themselves. I, on the other hand, being between a UK size 8 and 10, often get categorised as chubby in people’s minds, but I think that my foreign face means girls have never had the guts to say it outright.

It’s not really their fault though, they are programmed to think slim:

“Attempting to head off heart disease and other obesity-related illnesses, the government imposed waistline standards in 2007, requiring girth measurements at work-funded physical examinations and encouraging the rotund to diet and exercise.”

This, of course, is one end of the two extremes I have been faced with for 23 years. I’d like to say Japan’s “perfect body” ideals haven’t had an effect on me, but alas, having spent my most impressionable years (teen years) over there, I have inevitably always had a slight weight complex. Despite knowing that I am at a comfortable weight for my body, ways to slim down my figure (just a little) are often at the back of my mind. Having said this, I do acknowledge that the Japanese do have a healthier attitude to body size as a whole than many other nations, so when the concept isn’t taken to an extreme, theirs is a wise lifestyle to follow. It can’t be a coincidence that Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world.

On to the second extreme.

After spending so long worrying about being chubby, moving to England when I was 18 opened my eyes to the opposite end of the body image spectrum.

Suddenly my notion of chubby was contorted into “curvy”. It’s ok to be a bit chunky (by Japanese standards) because in the UK that makes you curvy, which in turn makes you sexy. Apparently.

Katie Green is a size UK size 12-14 and she recently launched the“Say No to Size Zero″campaign against super skinny models.

In accordance with this view, when I mention any sort of discomfort concerning my weight in the UK, I just get told that I’m “tiny” and that I’m being ridiculous. It’s tough having a more Japanese mindset when it comes to weight while sporting a “Western body” and to have my Western friends consider my frame more “Japanese” at the same time.

It’s becoming harder for me to tell which abuse is worse:

Regarding healthy sized people as “chubby” or overweight or considering rather chunky girls “curvy” so as not to bruise their egos.

Fukada Kyoko: Japanese actress famed for being extremely cute and ever so slightly “chubby”.

Tara Lynn: Up and coming “curvy” model.

Any thoughts?

pics via here, here and here.