I have been surprised since coming here by the shear number of articles in foreign papers that like to focus on how weird and twisted Japan is. Often they take something that seems perfectly reasonable, given appropriate context, and blow it hugely out of proportion. Living here, people often forward to me articles about Japan. Which I really appreciate, actually. I like reading about what the rest of the world sees Japan. However, I am starting to notice a pretty disturbing trend in the way Japan, or in fact most foreign countries are displayed.
This article she sent makes it seem like the is some kind of draconian rule here. The language used is so loaded and full of scary words, I found it hard to believe it is from such a reputable source as the New York Times. Am I to believe I now live in a country where the government “summons” people for the purpose of measuring their waists? That sends people to a “re-education” camp if they do not fall within the norms?
My mom also sent me a link to this article a while back and I was so surprised I looked it up in some local sources. I should say that I can now live more comfortably free of worry about the Japanese weight police coming for me in the night. Let me try and re-present the base of this article in a bit of a nicer light.
As you know Japan has nationalized health care, some portions of this health care are subsidized by the company you work for, so if you are working they are paying into the government plan, and you may acquire additional benefits. Part of the way this system works is that every year you are given a physical, (or should I say “special checkup”). You are free to take this physical with the doctor of your choice. However, several years back many big companies started having a day, at the company, where a van of doctors would come in and all of the employees could get checked, assembly line style. This was due to a push to extend a government program. They already provided this service in all of the schools, and some other government offices, for both children and employees. It was and is a lot cheaper to go through all of the test in a kind of assembly line. So companies wanting to encourage good health joined in the program. Everybody won, the companies looked proactive, nobody had to take a day off work, everybody was getting a physical every year, costs were kept very low, etc.
We are in this system actually, Danielle already had her health check day (expect a post once she gets the results), I will have mine coming up in September. The part of this that seems most surprising for most foreigners is the public nature of these checks. You are lined up, so the person behind you will probably be able to see what your weight is etc., if they try. However, the Japanese do not feel this to be odd at all, they follow a kind of implied privacy. And quite frankly no one cares what you weigh, or they will be too polite to really take a good look at it. However, there are people who are worried about this kind of thing, but there is nothing stopping them from paying a bit more money to get their physical on their own time. Except, perhaps, their loyalty to their company that would prevent them from taking a day out of work to do it.
This has been going on for years. The “summons” the man in the article got was probably just a reminder that his annual exam was due. Many cities also hold days were people, like retirees, small business owners, housewives, etc, can come get the checks done more cheaply in this assembly line fashion. (Think like the public flu shots in the US) The results of these tests are sent back to you via your place of business, city, school, etc. From what I understand it is not really made public, except if you need to miss work for some kind of treatment.
So this is the atmosphere where this new policy comes in. The Japanese Health Care System decided that simply weight and height alone were not a good enough measure of obesity. They wanted something they could point to in order to encourage people to get care. So they introduced another factor, waistline size. Now, if the doctors find that, according to the data, you are obese… oh I am sorry, the Japanese PC term is “Metabolic syndrome”, or “Metabo”. As in “Your not obese, your metabolism is just out of shape….” Anyway, if you are “Metabo” you will be provided with the best care to help you get to a healthy body size.
The care is optional, of course, but probably heavily recommended. Some companies may put some pressure on you to participate. Although I can’t imagine it being any more pressure filled than the “Weight Loss Challenges” I went through at my job in the US. The care includes things like seminars on nutrition, and maybe a counselor to help you look at your life and find ways to get the proper exercise. This is the so called “re-education”. Of course all of this is covered by your health care plan, in many cases completely covered. It will be paid for by either the government or your company. In the US a similar program would cost you way more. It cost our friend Jill almost 3000 dollars.
The aim of the program is to prevent rising health care costs, by keeping people healthy and providing preventative care. The biggest concerns that made this a story in Japan are that the initial waist limits were a bit low, and did not take entirely into account the variety of body shapes. Actually its not hard to see why, to me it often looks like they all have the same build, ;-P . But, it is likely these problems will be worked out as they doctors get more data, and the system will fall in line with reality.
Craziness, a draconian system that wants to keep its proletariat healthy, this is exactly what will happen if the US gets public health care! Look out America, FEAR a system that wants to keep you healthy!! I actually think that the feel of this article says more about America than it does about Japan, where this was a much smaller story then it may seem. I won’t go so far as to say that this article is part of a conspiracy to keep Americans in fear of a nationalized health care system. But, there are definitely those who seem to want us to fear nationalized health care. I think it is far more likely that the reporter was just using that fear as a way to write a more compelling story. Unfortunately, it has negative impact on the image of Japan, obscures the reality of the situation, and reinforces what I believe to be an irrational fear. The system here in Japan has problems, but it certainly seems to be working better in many ways than the systems back home.
Just a bit of food for thought, this really just boils down to a warning that the media is not perfectly objective. That all news must be taken with a grain of salt. Which I am sure you all know. It’s just easy to forget that, especially when you read about another country. One of the things living here has taught me is that people are pretty much the same everywhere. It is often easy to point fingers and say such and such is just weird, so japan as a whole is weird, but in reality, it is not.
Of course the temptation will always be there for the papers to run these kinds of stories. We run them about our own country (without attributing the weirdness to us being Americans), Japan runs them about the US (Because Americans are all fat, and we all own about 5 handguns, which we will probably use if you walk on our neighbors grass, but thats only if we have time, between all the teenage pregnancy pacts we keep making. If you didn’t know…), and Japan runs them about themselves (Sometimes, too many of them, in fact). The temptation and allure of these kinds of “look at the weirdo” stories is too big.
So keep sending me these kinds of links, but, as always, be skeptical of what the media tells you.