Some time ago it was noticed that Mediterranean countries, Italy and Greece in particular, are relatively free of heart disease. Why should that be? Olive oil? It’s a staple there. Maybe that accounts for it. An olive oil boom soon reached Japan. What’s good for the Greeks and Italians must be good for the Japanese.
It sounds plausible but it’s not true, Shukan Gendai (Jan 14-21) hears from Dr Masako Okuda, author of a recent book whose long title expresses its main point: “The constitutions of Japanese are different from the constitutions of Europeans.”
“Japanese people’s internal organs absorb more fat than the internal organs of Europeans or Americans,” she explains. Environmental differences make for genetic differences which give different foods different health merits for different races, she argues. Mediterranean people consume olive oil which gets stored as harmless subcutaneous fat. Japanese people consume olive oil and unwittingly fatten their organs, raise their blood pressure and harden their arteries. Priding themselves on heightened health consciousness, they are in fact increasing the health risks they mean to combat – all because they assume the human body basically functions similarly wherever it has evolved.
If that in fact is the assumption, it’s a relatively new one. A generation ago a fashionable ideology called “Nihonjinron” claimed Japanese bodies were unique – as were, according to an extended form of the argument, Japanese language, culture and thought patterns generally. Nihonjinron filtered into international trade negotiations, Japanese negotiators maddening their foreign interlocutors with one form or another of it in defense of protectionism against the import of foreign food and other products deemed harmful to Japanese, however safe elsewhere.
Internationalism and globalism, as they advanced, made Nihonjinron seem to look rather silly, and it soon fell by the wayside – with such results as olive oil booms and the mass appeal, media-fuelled, of foreign health products, foreign diets and so on which, to Okuda, are potentially harmful. It’s not Japanese uniqueness she’s affirming, but the uniqueness of every racial – which is to say genetically distinct – group.
Another example – this will hit some people hard – is red wine. The heart-disease-reducing, anti-aging benefits of organic chemicals called polyphenols are much touted. Red wine is rich in polyphenols. How nice. As we drink, we can bask in the glow of the good we’re doing ourselves. Okuda hates to spoil the party but feels she must. Polyphenols are readily available elsewhere – in fruits, green and yellow vegetables, soybeans and other non-alcoholic produce. Alcohol, she says, can be carcinogenic, especially in Japanese, roughly half of whom are constitutionally short, compared to westerners, of a particular enzyme that metabolizes alcohol. That’s no argument against drinking in moderation, but it may be one against over-imbibing red wine as though it were an unmixed blessing, a fountain of youth.
Milk is another case in point. Milk contains calcium, calcium builds bones – what better defense, then, against osteoporosis? But, counters Okuda, Japanese consume half as much calcium as Americans and yet are strikingly less prone to bone disease. Perhaps milk too promotes what it purports to cure? Bone disease rates are high in New Zealand and Sweden too, where milk is consumed in quantity.
And coffee. Besides being delicious, coffee is calming when you’re tense, stimulating when you’re low. It’s the caffeine that does it – and does other things as well, such as, Okuda tells Shukan Gendai, producing anxiety especially in Japanese, who are culturally prone to it in any case, unlike Africans and Americans, who can drink it with relative impunity. Asians in general, Okuda claims, are genetically unarmed against caffeine’s worse effects – with the exception, she points out, of the Chinese, who seem to take it in stride.© Japan Today