Japan Cracks Down on Waistlines

A rise in diabetes and other ailments is blamed on a growing appetite for sweets.

Japanese wait in a long line in front of Krispy Kreme doughnuts store in Tokyo's Shinjuku district.

Japanese wait in a long line in front of Krispy Kreme doughnuts store in Tokyo's Shinjuku district.

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TOKYO—Sunstar Inc., makers of GUM and Butler brand oral hygiene products, will be sending select employees to a most unusual three-day company retreat this year. The goal isn't high productivity, product development, or team building but instead slim waistlines. Sunstar's fat farm is part of a broad range of programs instituted by companies and the government here as Japan begins its battle with the bulge.

In a country seemingly devoid of Rubenesque curves, a country in which tofu makes regular appearances on menus and bean paste serves as a common substitute for chocolates in desserts, a country with the best longevity rates in the world, this may seem a strange preoccupation. But the two-hour lines at Tokyo's Krispy Kreme doughnut shops and the rising rates of diabetes tell of a country in transition.

Indeed, rice and fresh fruit consumption in Japan has fallen by about half since 1970, while beef consumption is up more than 40 percent and coffee drinking has tripled. The crepe shops that have sprouted up on street corners throughout Tokyo demonstrate the growing appetite for sweets. Notably, the number of diabetics in Japan has doubled in the past 15 years, and the government estimates that a further 10 million people have the warning signs for the disease. This is particularly troubling in a rapidly aging country like Japan, adding to the strain on Japan's national health insurance program.

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare released an alarming study two years ago that found that half of all men between the ages of 40 and 74 and 1 in 5 women in the same age group showed signs of "metabolic syndrome"—a cluster of risk factors for heart attacks and cardiovascular disease that includes high cholesterol, high blood pressure, elevated insulin levels, and abdominal obesity.

The report shocked the nation and prompted the government to pass legislation to force the Japanese to shape up. The laws to address what the Japanese have come to call "metabo" take effect this year. They've given the government and employers, long dominant forces in Japanese workers' lives, places at the dinner table in ordinary Japanese homes. They've also sparked a flurry of products to help Japanese keep trim or shed extra pounds.

One regulation, effective in April, requires all citizens over the age of 40 to have their waists measured every year. If a man's waist is more than 33.5 inches or a woman's more than 35.5 inches, they are considered at risk and referred for counseling and close monitoring. The government is also requiring companies to slim down their workers or face higher payments into the national insurance program.

Companies across the country have responded with a variety of initiatives. Sunstar has its boot camp, which includes lectures on diet, exercise, and even Zen meditation. Family members of employees over 40 whose love handles won't budge will also be asked to attend the camp. The company also offers overweight workers free delivery of healthful, traditionally Japanese food like soybeans and brown rice.

Computer, mobile phone, and appliance maker NEC Corp. requires all of its employees in its Japanese offices to undergo yearly checks from the time they turn 30, a full decade earlier than the government regulations require. And all employees must attend lifestyle instruction courses. Any employee who shows "poor results" (think beer belly) will receive individual follow-up attention, says Susumu Makihara, general manager of human resources for the global giant's Japan operations.

NEC's cafeteria now sports a "healthy menu option," and Makihara says that for now, the company will not be monitoring what employees eat in the cafeteria. "This is a major issue for aging societies," says Makihara. "NEC is facing this now and going beyond what is required by the law, though we recognize that, at the end of the day, it is a personal choice."

Other companies have made healthful eating less of a recommendation and more of a job requirement. The local press highlighted one corporation, a seafood processor, that will require its staff to eat at least one of the company's own fish sausages every day. The sausages contain an omega-3 fatty acid called DHA, which is believed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.