Why Japanese Food Isn’t THAT Healthy, but the Japanese Lifestyle Is; My Experience

Japan currently has the highest life expectancy in the world. Every time I plan out a new article on this site, I do a search analysis to see what people are searching around the world about Japan everyday. Overwhelmingly, the question that appears at the top of almost every auto fill result and SEO page is the question, “Why Do Japanese People Live So Long?” As somebody who has lived in Japan for the better part of a decade, I can understand a lot of this obsession, and have lived this lifestyle. Through living here I can understand how healthy the Japanese lifestyle is from firsthand experience. But…at the same time, some things do puzzle me. There was a very popular YouTube video circulating around a few years ago that claimed Japanese people were extremely healthy because of how healthy Japanese food is! “Japanese people drink green tea instead of coffee!”, “Japanese convenience stores have healthy options!”, etc. These were the kinds of points they covered in the video. I would like to talk about my opinion on this based on years of living in Japan, and having many, many, many meals here.

So… Is Japanese food really healthy?

Oh, I’m such a joker

Yes, most Japanese food is healthy!But…there is a BIG but regarding those points from the video.

The thing is…while I wouldn’t outright disagree with these points (and I do think Japanese people tend to eat healthier than the average Westerner), if you actually live here you know that one of the most popular foods in Japan is…*drumroll*…fried chicken! For real, fried chicken is treated like a side dish in Japan, with it showing up in more than a few of the more formal dinners I have enjoyed here. Among other popular Japanese foods are tonkatsu, a breaded pork cutlet. Tempura, fish and vegetables fried in oil. Yakitori, cuts of chicken on a kebab, often dressed with fatty dressings, cheese, and extremely sodium-high dashi sauces (or literally just 塩 shio. literally salt coating.) Fried tofu is also a common side dish. Don’t even get me started on how integral a role alcohol plays in the every social function in Japan. It’s practically impossible to even make friends in this country if you’re not open to heading down to the local pub and slamming back 5 pints every Friday (I love these Japanese style drinking parties, also known as nomikai飲み会、i’m just teasing, although it is true…) If you want to read more about why Japanese people have so many drinking parties you can read one of my other article’s “What Do People Do For Fun in Japan? The Concept of “Nijikai”. In addition, you can read about a weird experience I had leading up to a university drinking party at my article ” Studying at Japanese University: One Strange Experience I Had.” They both outline the expectations and impact of social dynamics on food culture and relationship-building in Japan. So…Japanese people aren’t healthy then?

I’m teasing a bit, and I’m definitely cherry-picking here…but my point is that there are PLENTY of unhealthy foods in Japan that people eat on a very regular basis. The reality is that Japan has a very long history with fried foods, but…there is one key distinction that I believe is the main reason for why Japanese people actually are healthy, and is something that I haven’t seen covered by many other outlets.

I believe that this is the main reason why Japanese people are healthy, and the Japanese diet is healthy. All about the concept of “ichiji-sansai.”

I believe the main reason Japanese people are healthy is because of the concept (not the strict principle) of ichiji-sansai (一汁三菜), lit. “1 soup three dishes”. Put very simply, while it is a principle of the ancient Japanese culinary arts, put very simply, the concept behind ichiji-sansai is to create balance in a meal by serving a variety of different side dishes. Essentially, one soup (almost always a variety of miso soup) will accompany 3 different dishes (typically 1 main dish and 2 side dishes) in a single meal.

A small dish of pickles is liking hiding behind the miso soup, making this a perfect example of ichiji-sansai.

So…what does this mean? This means that in Japanese meals, even if an unhealthy option like fried chicken or tonkotsu is served, several only healthy side-dishes are often served as well. This means that even you’re always getting some serving of vegetables, and some serving of fiber in each meal. In fact, tonkotsu’s typical meal layout encompasses this balance perfectly. Tonkotsu is a pork cutlet, but is always served alongside a healthy helping of shredded cabbage, miso soup, and typically a side plate of picked vegetables (お新香 oshinko. ) The point being, while the main dish isn’t the healthiest option you could pick, the overall meal composition as a whole ensures a consistent balance in the Japanese diet and lifestyle that you won’t find in most other countries.

Almost every meal will come with some side healthy side okazu. Most sit-down meals will come with miso soup (which is loaded in antioxidants and b vitamins, while also typically containing seaweed and other vegtables. This meal composition (While officially and historically referred to as ichiji-sansai) is colloquially often referred to as the teishoku style (Teishoku being written in kanji as 定食), and is a very common meal option for restaurants in Japan. If we look further, we can see how the teishoku / ichiji-sansai mindset has deep roots in the way Japanese people think about food.

One common misconception Westerners have about Japanese food and the Japanese diet.

Sometimes bowls of rice in Japan will be served with umeboshi, a type of pickled Japanese plum. I like it, but it’s an acquired taste.

One thing you will often see in Westernized Japanese restaurants is this idea that rice is a Japanese food, or that Japanese people eat rice. As a result, you will often see bowls of rice listed as separate options to order on menus. Restaurants in Japan offer this option as well, but the common misconception here is that westerners think that rice is something Japanese people eat as the staple of their diet. Or that Japanese people mainly eat fish and rice. While I’m not quite sure from a historic perspective how much this has changed (at one point in history rice was used as a currency between Japan’s multiple classes), in a modern context, rice (and in particular, white rice) is eaten as a palate cleaner. Meaning, rice is something that is almost unconsciously eaten between bites of other dishes. This is something that I think many Westerners don’t pick up on in regards to Japanese cuisine.

If you just serve a bowl of plain white rice to a Japanese person with no other dishes, they’ll probably be confused. Another common mistake foreigners make when coming to Japan is that they try to cover their rice in soy sauce. This is a big no-no. It just looks…really crude. White rice is supposed to be boring. It helps cleanse your palate between bites, adds overall volume to the meal, and (especially historically speaking) is cheap to make. You can think of it as the foundation of the meal, and certainly not the focus. My point being: Rice is actually a somewhat unhealthy food. It’s calorie dense and lacks nutrients. However, as a piece of an overall bigger meal, rice serves an important function in filling out less calorie dense foods, so each person can feel full despite eating other healthier, more nutrient-dense foods. This is one more way that the overall balance of the Japanese diet serves to create a healthier lifestyle for the Japanese people. While all of the individual parts that make up a Japanese meal tend to be either healthy, or not, the enter meal composition as a whole centered around the ichiji-sansai / teishoku methodology ensures that during every meal of the day people are getting some healthy portions in their meals, even if that isn’t the staple portion of the dish. I believe that this is the primary reason why the Japanese diet is healthy, why the Japanese lifestyle is healthy, and why Japanese people tend to live longer than Westerners on average.

Some other factors that contribute to the average Japanese person’s healthy lifestyle: Other reasons why people are healthy in Japan

Besides diet, there are some other things I have noticed while living in Japan since early 2015 that I believe contribute to the overall healthy lifestyle of people in Japan. Most of these things are very situational to Japan, so rather than being things that you can easily pick up into your daily routine, many of these factors are interesting anomalies or anecdotes stemming from the way people live their lives everyday in Japan.

Exercise by necessity: How Japan’s stellar public transportation system encourages people to exercise daily

The commute in Japan can be a truly intense experience, and an absolutely terrifying one at that. The fear of being shoved into Takeshi-san’s armpit pales in comparison to the thought of being even 1 minute late to work, something that will certainly be noticed by your peers. Luckily, the trains in Japan are on time. ALWAYS on time. In fact, living in Japan, you will often see news articles about the one train conductor that had the audacity to be *gasp* 20 seconds late! Trains take being on time so seriously in Japan that if the train is even one minute late, workers will be waiting on standby at each stop ready to hand out vouchers, which essentially serve as proof that your being late wasn’t your fault. Japan’s trains are reliable, clean, and are very convenient. In fact, this has permeated the way people talk in Japanese, where people always refer to the nearest station whenever describing any area in any of Japan’s major cities (Japanese streets actually don’t have street names, so this is almost be necessity.)

All of this convenience has lead to a country-wide system that means MANY, MANY people ride the trains everyday. In Japan, owning a car is almost an exception, with the vast majority of the country commuting by foot to work every day. This means that if you move to Japan, you can expect to ride the train too! Only, Japan has a another unique characteristic, especially in Tokyo: an absolutely insane population density. It is absolutely the exception, not the rule, if you ever get a chance to sit on the train while riding on any of Tokyo’s major lines. This is somewhat inconvenient, but a really positive side effect of this dynamic, is that people tend to get a lot of exercise daily just by commuting daily to and from work. I know that for me personally, when I was working an office job in Japan, between the walk to the station, and then the walk to the office, compounded with standing on the train for around 20-30 minutes, I probably walked around a mile to get to work each morning. That really adds up, and definitely helps the average Japanese person maintain a healthier lifestyle without actively taking the initiative to try and improve their own health. There almost isn’t a need. If you are eating the average Japanese diet and living the average Japanese lifestyle, you should already be pretty healthy, assuming you don’t have any prior medical conditions. Really though, I’ve been living in Japan for so long that the idea of not having access to Japan’s transportation infrastructure would really be something I would have to get used to. It keeps you active, and it’s oh, so convenient.

Societal pressure: In Japan, the people around you will let you know if you put on any weight

This is something that many people don’t like to talk about. It’s almost like this taboo thing to suggest. “What do you mean?! Japanese people are healthy because they drink green tea! There’s no pressure!!!” But, all joking aside, this is a very real aspect of life in Japan, and is something that isn’t really so negative once you get used to it. The fact is that, based on my own experience living in Japan, Japanese people will absolutely call each other out for gaining even a miniscule amount of weight. I remember one time I was sitting with a few university friends, and two guys who hadn’t seen each other in around 6 months said hi to each. Then one of them looked the other guy up…and down…and then just blurted out “最近太ったね! Translation: Wow…you got fat!” And he really wasn’t saying it to be funny. At least, I don’t think he was…this is just one of those strange contradictions that exists within the Japanese culture. People love to beat around the bush, and so much of Japanese society is about mastering the art of indirect communication. Things are expected to be sugar-coated, and people are expected to constantly demonstrate restraint and extreme caution in the words they choose. Then, one day you might run into somebody you barely know and they’ll call you fat…right to your newly fat face! It’s honestly really funny. It doesn’t make me mad at all.

Controversy aside, I don’t think people here do this to be mean. In fact, I’ve questioned a few people over the years about how they can be so comfortable telling their friends they gained weight. They told me this: “I was worried about them. I wanted to make sure they were okay!” This is a symptom of Japanese collectivism. If somebody is not matching up to the health standards of the group, others will try to help them become more healthy. Even people who aren’t very close to that person. As the person who has recently gained weight, they will likely feel like they are inconveniencing other people by making them worry, which will motivate them to try and be healthier. It…can be a bit brutal, but I think this is a huge reason why there are so few overweight people in Japan. At least, it’s certainly an important component.

In conclusion

The balanced diet of the average Japanese person, coupled with the more active lifestyle make it easier to stay thin in Japan, while the collectivist mindset towards gaining weight is what incentives people from gaining further weight (other than the obvious aesthetic incentives.) Just like with most things in Japan, there are a lot of tiny factors at play here.

If you are interested in reading more about how my experiences living in Japan, as well as how the Japanese culture effects tiny lifestyle factors in Japan, please check out one of my other articles below!

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