Japanese women are getting skinnier, a lot skinnier. The phenomenon began 25 years ago, and it encompasses all body types. Thus, compared with the mid-80s Japan now has both more women who are thin (BMI of less than 18.5), and fewer women who are overweight (BMI > 25).
The trend is most pronounced among women in their 20s. In the 80s, there were twice as many thin Japanese women in this age range as there were overweight women. Now, Japanese women are 4 times more likely to be thin. In this age group, average daily calorie consumption was found in recent government studies to be just two-thirds of recommended levels.
Japanese public health officials generally agree that young adult Japanese women have, as a group, become dangerously skinny. The average birth weight of their babies is falling for example, and their risk of death in instances serious illness is increasing.
The problem, it seems, is social pressure in the form of women looking critically at other women. “Japanese women are outstandingly tense and critical of each other,” said Hisako Watanabe, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Keio University and an expert in eating disorders.
“There is a pervasive habit among women to monitor each other with a serious sharp eye to see what kind of slimness they have. They want other people to be fatter than themselves. It is complicated, competitive and so subtle.”
(Meanwhile, Japanese men are gaining weight at a prodigious pace. In the mid-80s, 20% of men in their 50s were overweight; now, it’s 32%. The problem became so bad that the government imposed national waistline standards in 2007, and required employer-funded physical examinations including waistline measurements, along with focused education programs.)