December 5, 2005

Japan's getting supersized

Sapio (Dec. 14)

"Japan is turning into America's food colony," fumes Sapio.

Just as Okinawa bore the brunt of the U.S invasion in 1945, the same island prefecture 60 years later is on the front lines of an "invisible invasion" -- not military, but gastronomic. In short, Sapio fears, Okinawa is gorging itself to death on American junk food. And the rest of the country is not far behind.

"Black humor," "mass delusion," snaps Sapio in brusque dismissal of Okinawa's claim to symbolize health and longevity.

The proud "World Longevity Regional Declaration" issued by the prefecture in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II flies in the face of the facts, the magazine charges. Record numbers of centenarians aside (an estimated 427 in 2001, out of a population of 1.27 million), the young and middle-aged are increasingly sorry specimens, prone to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. And if you look at Sapio's photo of the popular American-style "A-lunch," a heaping plateful of carbohydrates glistening with grease, you are almost tempted to pardon the magazine's provocative and hyperbolic military metaphors. If food were a weapon designed to reduce an enemy population, this is what it might look like.

Some statistics, to put all this in perspective. Every five years the health ministry releases a prefecture-by-prefecture life expectancy report. In 1980 and again in 1985, Sapio says, Okinawa led the nation in longevity for men and women. In 1990, Okinawan women were still the longest-lived, but men had slipped to fifth place. In 2000, though women retained ("barely") their lead, men ranked 26th.

Worse still, in 2000 the death rate among Okinawans aged 35-44 was the highest in the country. If the very old are thriving, something seems to have gone drastically wrong with their grandchildren.

American fast food landed with the U.S. Army in Okinawa, which saw and hosted its full evolution from Spam to McDonald's. Okinawa's traditional potato-based diet is simple in the extreme. Today's centenarians grew up on it, and seem to be doing just fine. But wartime privation left the population eager for abundance, and this is what American fast food symbolized. If quantity came at the expense of quality, it seemed a small price to pay.

Such are the notion and the diet Sapio finds underpinning the health crisis brewing today.

The magazine raises another issue -- genetics. Dr. Hideaki Tanaka, advisor to the Tomishiro Chuo Center for Diabetes and Lifestyle Diseases in Okinawa, believes the Japanese in particular are genetically ill-equipped to digest the oily foods of which the locally famous A-lunch seems such an egregious example. This sort of "food culture," damaging anywhere (soaring American obesity rates speak for themselves) has particularly ominous implications here, Tanaka argues.

At a Naha restaurant, Sapio's reporter has his own amusing encounter with an A-lunch: "a giant pork cutlet big as a man's palm," served with "a mountain of white rice," wiener sausages, ham, and so on. Cutting into the pork cutlet, he is astonished (and plainly disconcerted) to discover concealed beneath it an omelet and a hamburger! Eating American-style can be a full-time job. Japan better give it up, Sapio warns.

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