Thoughts on cake after a month in Japan

i lost seven pounds in japan, proving yet again that exercise is necessary but not sufficient for weight loss.

for those who don’t know, for nearly six months prior to my departure, i was doing P90x3 six days a week, and while i packed on the muscle, at no point did i ever weigh less than when i started. my weight shot UP. there was a little bit of fat loss as evidenced by slightly looser pants, but it was nothing to get excited about, certainly less than what i could have gotten by just sticking with the treadmill.

but japanese people are skinny. not ALL of them, of course, but as a class, they’re fucking thin. and it’s easy to see why.

i know a lot of you like to rag on the standard american lifestyle. i do not. it’s not that i love it as much as that i just don’t want to be that guy. i had burgers on friday, pizza on saturday, and mexican yesterday — fuck you, i’ve been gone for a month — so you can be sure i’m not trying to convert you to anything. but holy cow, they do it so much better over there.

in the first place, they walk, often in a hurry while fighting crowds. i sweated a lot just getting where i needed to go.

but more than that, they eat fish and vegetables with nearly every meal. yes, you can get a burger and fries, or kfc, or whatever, but those kinds of things tend to be the exception. daily meals are vegetables and fish for protein with rice or noodles for a starch. the portion sizes are smaller. the produce is not the bland, inflated (because sold by weight) crap we get here. convenience stores are not stocked with processed food made from government-subsidized corn. there are almost no chips and cookies have way less sugar.

and while that all sounds great, there are some negatives. for example, the produce is tasty but expensive. it’s not unusual to pay $2-3 for a single orange and $20 for a (small) watermelon. that takes a real bite out of a working class budget.

what’s more, the necessity of walking in japan is underwritten by a lack of physical space. trains run everywhere simply because they can. everything is packed tight. it’s damned hard to have both comfortable living space and efficient, universal mass transit.

i don’t exactly see people — here or anywhere — lining up to air-dry their laundry in a studio apartment with a kitchen you can literally wrap your arms around. it’s a daily frustration.

if i can’t reliably go everywhere i need to on mass transit, then i need a car. once i have the freedom of a car, i don’t have to satisfy myself with the hassles of tiny living. i can drive further out. and thus you end up with sprawl.

most of the japanese that i’ve talked to don’t like the crowds, and while they’ve grown up with (and so are used to) the cramped living conditions, they would get larger homes if they had the choice. and that to me is important because it highlights how much of our respective lifestyles are driven, not by inherent virtue, but simply by the choices available.

if the japanese islands quintupled in space, old habits would persist for a time, but gradually they would erode as peoples’ customs changed to fit the now-ample space, and within a few generations you’d have something more like what goes in in china, america, russia, and brazil.

that’s not to say we don’t need to make changes. of course we do. back in the day i dated a lawyer from mexico city working at the mexican consulate in washington, dc, where i lived at the time. she was 18 months into a two-year appointment and had gained a lot of weight (not that i cared).

“it’s your cakes,” she explained. “they’re so delicious. and they’re everywhere!”

she freely admitted to making fun of americans as fat and lazy, but when faced with the world of temptations we’ve built for ourselves, she succumbed just as easily — or perhaps even easier for not having grown up with it — as anyone else.

the challenge will be to re-architect our lives in a way that isn’t a mass, government-coerced conversion to a new religion. some people look to how we’ve handled smoking. i don’t see that as an unmitigated success — although it has been effective — and i get very angry at the suggestion that our ability to get fewer and fewer people to smoke involved no trade-off. it absolutely did.

i don’t smoke cigarettes. never have. but smokers have become de facto second-class citizens, worthy of disgust and derision. there may be good, health-based reasons to reintroduce legal segregation, but let’s not pretend like that has no further effects. those policies put the healthy (and wealthy) whole foods-shopper at the top of a social status pyramid, and i find that abhorrent.

there is no obesity epidemic. that suggests obesity is the disease. imagine if, in the nineteenth century, when faced with recurrent outbreaks of cholera, politicians reacted not by cleaning the water supply, but by creating a government program to hand out anti-diarrhea medicine to poor people.

i would suggest the so-called obesity epidemic has more to do with thirty years of supply side policies, with corn subsidies and increasing class stratification, than with some sudden change in basic human nature.

after all, human beings are how they are, whether here or on the japanese islands.