Body confidence and body positivity in Japan

By Hilary Keyes

“If you want to be worth anything in Japan, you better lose weight. Right now, you’re a joke, and no one will take anything you do seriously. Forget getting married, too—no man wants to pay for your food bill.” (Japanese man, 27)

Being told something like that when your image of conversation in Japan is “polite and considerate” can crush your self-esteem.

Plus Size Visibility in Japan

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Japan has come a long way in terms of body positivity or being more accepting of women that are larger than the average size. Celebrities like Naomi Watanabe, the “chubby idol” group Pottya, comedian Barbie, Haruna Kondo from comedy duo Harisenbon, and the comedy group Morisanchu are all prime examples of pudgy girls being seen on TV and in mainstream media. This is both good and bad, unfortunately.

Having a diverse range of women taking on public personas has made the issue of size and beauty more recognizable in Japanese society. On the other hand, the majority of these women are comedians and are called “fat” or “manly” or other such terms because they aren’t fitting the traditional model of what a Japanese woman should look like. Naomi Watanabe has been particularly vocal about this and is one of the leading body positivity models for plus-size women in Japan.

The Reality for Japanese Women

Being thin or even underweight is considered more desirable by Japanese women across the nation—in fact, the Japan Association for Eating Disorders and Japan’s Health Ministry have both found that women in their 30s-50s are going to extreme measures to be as thin as pop icons in their teens and early twenties. According to a nutritionist I spoke with, “while the life expectancy rate for women is almost 90 years old, most of those women are woefully underweight, suffering from osteoporosis and other nutritional deficiencies, and take more medication than their mothers’ generation did.” Generally speaking, anemia, calcium deficiencies, and poor diets overall are making Japanese women suffer for the sake of perceived beauty.

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© Savvy Tokyo

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Is it better to be too fat or too thin?

A majority of the time the response from health professionals and regular people would be too thin.

Fat shaming seems to be a hot topic at the moment and I am not exactly certain why its become taboo to tell people who are overweight or obese that it is in fact unhealthy, speaking as somone who had an unhealthy diet and was overweight for most of their teen years I would not promote it as something to be proud of it was bad for my physical and mental health.

At the end of the day people need to eat healthy foods and excercise there are no shortcuts or simple answers and losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight is something that is different for each person.

I am not sure whether or not i would consider Japan's weight classifications necessarily wrong but rather question why western society in general has such lax standards, 53% of Australian's are considered to be overweight but rather than telling people they need to eat better and excercise we seem to be sending the message that its fine to be overweight or obese as long as you are happy and just forget about of the health implications that go along with that.

My wife is Japanese and weighs 38kg, she eats healthy food and doesn't have an eating disorder and whilst i think she should do more exercise I would still prefer her to be underweight than over.

We live in an age of excesses and its easy to fall into a habit of doing everything to excess, maybe instead of promoting body images we should be promoting self regulation in people giving them better skills to manage their own weight and health.

-1 ( +5 / -6 )

A majority of the time the response from health professionals and regular people would be too thin.

Actually, it appears slightly overweight people live the longest:

But I'd rather live a shorter, healthier life of exercise and activity, than a longer one being less healthy and less comfortable in my body. I supposed I'm biased though.

I see some of my friends I grew up with when I go back home, and they are the same age as me, but seem 10-20 years older due to lack of exercise and activity. I feel for them. But it's usually not too late, they could still get active if they wanted to.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

Japanese are probably the slimmest people in the world, and live the longest. Far longer than Western Nations. Its not a coincidence.

-3 ( +5 / -8 )

Japanese are probably the slimmest people in the world, and live the longest. Far longer than Western Nations. Its not a coincidence.

Once again passing along bullocks information here; Japanese may live longer than people in other countries but longevity is not the key to quality of life!

Also when you comment about "western" nations, you really should look at the list. Switzerland is No.2 and in the top 25 nations in the world for life expectancy 22 out of 25 are "western" with Singapore (3) and South Korea (11) being the only other "Asian" countries in the list!

And furthermore between both sexes, Japan only "leads" Switzerland by 3 months!

8 ( +9 / -1 )

Exercise and watching what you eat are key.Sure anyone can come up with various ailments as to why they are like they are body wise.But you don't get big by eating less.It's easier for women to stay slimmer if they didn't have children as opposed to having.When I go back home and see the youngbloods in my family with their gut and a half,it's like what happened.They know and most people do,that exercise is a necessity,moreso when getting up in age.The no.1 problem is lack of willing effort.If it were easy,everyone would lose weight.Hardly anyone is at their optimum weight.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

I am considered plus size in Japan, although I am not in the UK. I'm taller than most Japanese, too. Can't buy clothes here as everything is too short or, if buying 'plus size' clothes, fugly and made with nasty synthetics.

I have noticed more fatter people in Japan, but there are still more obviously underweight people here, and that is just as big a public health issue.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

I am honestly disappointed when people use the fat shaming card everytime I point out that someone is humungously obese. For me, they are just justifying the person's unhealthy lifestyle instead and denying the fact that obesity is infact a health problem. I have the same sentiments when people use the body positivity excuse to justify insane dieting and eating problems.

I for one is struggling and trying my best to have enough exercise and balanced body. I was underweight when I was younger but gained too much weight after I turned 30. I made the choice to acknowledge the issue, seek help, and act on it. It is a work i progress, but atleast I am working on it instead of shouting fat shaming while shoving empty calories into my mouth.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

53% of Australian's are considered to be overweight 

Unfortunately it's much worse than that. About 2/3 of aussies are overweight or obese (similar numbers in north am, uk, oz & nz; better in europe & much worse in the P.I)

In japan, i reckon most women of larger stature, not necessarily overweight but just 'too' tall, athletic, big etc for society's standards, feel like they don't fit in and/or feel ostracized and I don't think it's gonna change any time soon (don't think the big/bubbly/funny J girls we see on TV are deemed 'attractive' by society).

Petite women do reign supreme in Asia/Japan ( worshiped by asian blokes & most western expats), which isn't necessarily a bad thing for those of us who're into tall/athletic/other types of women!!!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Asian women generally age better than western women,in part a different body type and in diet. But there are a lotta 'skinny fat' Japanese women.Look slim from appearance,but have a sizeable gut that is covered up.That would freak me out more than a female who looks big.Not my kind of hidden surprise lol!

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Whatever really, Watanabe Naomi has a great personality, so what if she is "Plus" size, All that matters is what is "inside"!

8 ( +8 / -0 )

I notice the article uses the word 'pudgy'... nice and judgemental there... could've used overweight, but no, go for the high school description.

I rather suspect that most of the comments above are from superfit people who are perfect in every way... must be great to be perfect.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

I don't think Japanese women have anything to worry about. What

is considered as being fat in Japan is considered as slim in other countries, escpecially western countries.

when I went back home last year I was shocked at the size of the women there! It's unnatural and very unattractive.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

People in Europe are getting bigger and bigger, (only what I see with my own eyes whenever I go back).

0 ( +1 / -1 )

My wife is Japanese and weighs 38kg

My Ghosh Man! Give the poor woman some money for food!!!

If you put yourself out there and need validation you can expect to be disappointed. If you like how you look then that is the end of it. I would not be happy being fat not because of others but because I don't want to look like that or be out of shape. On the other hand, in northern climates I have visited the big round guys are tough as hell and it is appropriate to be big and strong as hell with no visible abs.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

There is probably more problems with gross underweight than overweight.

Over 25 years I've noticed more overweight people men, women and children. I don't know how much that is due to diet, good or bad.

My wife is short in height and about 48 kg. I'm always trying to make her a little more fat.

Myself I became very overweight some years ago 100 kg and been on a calorie limiting diet since April. Trying to lose 10-15 kg. Very slow.

Probably I'm having an op soon so need to lose the fat.

Underweight with stick legs is very bad. I myself have enormous bones like tree trunks.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Doesn't Naomi live in the US? So many awash ways to get obese in the US. Saw her in a CM the other day, dancing around looking like an idiot in a skimpy high school uniform. As far as marketing, it worked.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Szero25: Fat shaming seems to be a hot topic at the moment and I am not exactly certain why its become taboo to tell people who are overweight or obese that it is in fact unhealthy, speaking as somone who had an unhealthy diet and was overweight for most of their teen years I would not promote it as something to be proud of it was bad for my physical and mental health.

When is it ever okay to shame someone for their physical condition and what kind of person would want to do that to someone else? Also, someone else's physical condition is none of your business if they haven't asked for your opinion.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

As I read through the entire article after clicking "read more" I noticed this:

There are by far more clothing options available in today’s Japan compared to the frumpy tunic tops and baggy body hiding suits of ten years ago.

Alas, the current trend is not much better. Slim women wear the frumpy, body-hiding clothes, too. Doesn't matter whether it's from high end designers in Omotesando or Uniqlo. Yes, some clothes are made from the finest fabrics and cut in amazing asymmetrical designs, but hiding under a well-designed version of a tent or oversized bathrobe does nothing to flatter most women.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

If your confidence in yourself and your body is dependent on the ability to attract men and you are overweight, you are gonna have a bad time.

If you come asking me why you can't get a boyfriend or husband and you want me give you an empty answer that does not help you solve the problem or you want me to condemn men for being men, you are gonna have a bad time.

I watched a pimpled, overweight Japanese girl become a knock-out over the course of about a year and a half at college. She ran her guts out. I wish I had married her instead of her friend. Don't worry. I divorced her friend a long time ago anyway.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Overweight girls look pretty good after 10 beers at the izakaya.

0 ( +1 / -1 )


Well, as long as they hold their suds like proper ladies, and don’t start getting all rambunctious... ; )

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Reckless The slim ones look even better :D

0 ( +1 / -1 )

How do you like your chicken? With some meat on it or just the bone?

Too skinny just doesn't work for me.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This discussion is hilarious... all you skinny judgmental folk need to wake up. I am fat, my husband is skinny- I run on the treadmill 6ks a day, he sloths on the couch. I run rings around him, when we do anything like walk or play tennis together. His blood sugar is a concern at the docs - mine isn't. my cholesterol is perfect and I have no health issues... he has several health concerns. I am the same shape and size as my mother and grandmother... 5'2 and 85kg... and yet we eat the same food i the same amount... I call BS.

And when I'm in Japan I get enough offers to have no concerns about my vanity, although hubby gets a bit defensive about it.

Who wants to be with some ego on legs that cares what weight you are? let the fools sneer - who are they to you? precisely no-one...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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