Essay 1 – Eating Disorders in Japan

 Essay 1 – Eating Disorders in Japan

MIT – Intro to Japanese Culture

Study and Research Report: Eating Disorders in Japan: Pike and Boyovoy (PDF)

According to the evaluation of eating disorders and its impact on the culture in Japan, per Pike and Borovoy, it is difficult to gather data. This is due to the limitations of current eating disorder research having a focus on Western cultures and societies. Japan is the first non-Western civilization to become an industrialized economic power, so all research found stands alone.

There were several case subjects used in their research to determine which gender is more likely to be affected, at what age, family background and status, and what outside factors such as social and cultural ideals of beauty, will help the subjects be more prone to disordered eating. Pike and Boroboy explain that looking at disordered eating without taking the culture in which its happening cripples the potential data you can gather. Since the known risk factors are living in an industrialized society, with rapid social change, and democracy which all revolve around the society, not the individual – the culture in which the eating disorder is studied, must be included.

In one study of a 23 year old woman, it is apparent that her view on the Japanese culture is negative. She does not want to marry a Japanese man because she feels that men in her own culture cannot understand the Western ‘love marriage’ ideal. She is also scared that she will end up like her mother, being in a loveless marriage if she settles in this way. This perception reveals Western influence and invasion on the Japanese culture because it encourages the generalized stereotype that ‘Japanese men cannot understand love’. The study also reveals that the Japanese weight standard is considerably lower in Japan than in Western cultures, as she has never been overweight by either cultures standards but is still considered average in Japanese. However, she would be considered thin in Western.

Another study was taken from an 18 year old woman, whose parents were successful university graduates; herself did not graduate high school due to her disorder. Her ability to become an independent individual had been stunted due to her fear of being on her own. A side note must be made of her relationship with her father as a potential additional factor. She had an extremely distant relationship with her father, yet continued to bathe with him well past what is the social norm in Japan. This behavior made her uncomfortable but no other sexual behavior between the two were noted.

  • Please note the social norm of public and group bathing in Japan. Communal bath houses still exist today.

The study noted that specifically American society expects women to maintain the nurturance and household work while attaining their career goals; combining these two separate titles and roles. Femininity in America has allowed women to gain higher education and higher career aspirations but at the same time expects them to retain their role as a strong community and family separately. In Japan, women can achieve either direction but if they choose marriage and motherhood, they must limit their career aspirations within that confinement, as a secondary role. It becomes a ‘one or the other’ decision. If they choose marriage, they must limit themselves and their household income to that which is brought in by their husband alone. This limitation encourages Japanese women to search out only the successful men, who they know can support them as well as potential children.

Their career aspirations are also different, in that they do not see the term ‘career’ in the same way that Americans do. Americans view this as an office or corporation role, in which they are ‘on call’ to the company 24/7. Japan has this too, but it’s limited to the men, who often work from 5am until nearly midnight on weekdays. With their husbands nearly completely focused on their career work, there is little real interaction between husband, wife, and children. This limits the family structure to be the wife/mother and children and other females within the family structure (such as mother-in-law or sister, aunt). The man’s role deteriorates to that of bread winner. So a natural progression for the criteria for marriage would be limited by potential income and not rely on romantic love in such a culture.

However, I’d like to note that even though the Japanese culture may not strive for romantic love, it does show a great deal of respect and importance on the family structure and stability. Females are given the opportunity to fully focus on family and social aspects. Although confined to their immediate family nucleus. In Japanese culture, individualism is not the optimal ideal. The focus is their society or family as a whole and therefore more important than the individual. Feminism does not exist in the same way that it does in America. Especially when it comes to the work force. The study was uncertain if this lack of feminism is due to a lack of interest in the women (assuming that they either do not see a problem with the gender social role structure) or if they feel it cannot be changed and don’t pursue ways to change it. Another line of thought could be that in the situation where an individual wants to place themselves above the collective, they have the option of going to the United States, where it is viewed that individualism takes priority. Perhaps women that stay in Japan do so because they accept the social roles they have there and know that should they disagree with them, they can go elsewhere.

The study contemplates that the amount of time these women have to spend alone or focused on the females in their family, raises their risk factor for developing an eating disorder. This is contradictory to the theorized influences in Western cultures, which are the constant stress surrounding a need for achievement, work load, and career. But in Japan, is spurred by the isolation or limited interaction with other females. One could theorize that a competition may arise among these women and that can cause the equivalent stress and anxiety.

According to the research, Japanese women still make 50 percent of that of their male counterparts, in the work place. A college degree is less important overall for women. A degree may increase her marriage potential but if she were to use the degree for her own career, the chances of marrying decreases dramatically. The college degree does not have the same connection to career and success as it does in the American culture. In response to this, college degrees designed specifically for women focus on household maintenance and home economic classes. This is reminiscent of the American 1950’s, in which many women would attend college to broaden their chances of finding a potential husband who would attain a degree. Once a man had been ‘caught’, many of these women would drop out of college, since it had served its purpose. This is not to say that Japanese women do not value themselves or their work as housewives, in fact Japan is unique in their view that the domestic household work is considered a social productive. They consider this role high standing and contribute to society. Contradictory to the American view that the housewife or stay at home mom is reserved only for the wealthy and completely dependent on her husband (per the Feminist movement in America), in Japan they do not view this role as dependent at all, but is their fulltime career. They also do not limit this possible role to those who can afford it, it’s accepted as the best option for all women.

As far as the statistical data, at the time the report was written, 10 percent of women in their twenties and 16 percent of women in their thirties reported a BMI (body mass index) of 18.5 percent. (Pike) Dangerously close to the weight category that anorexia nervosa falls into. At the same time the population mean weight has actually increased for both men and women. This seems contradictory but is the same pattern that has been displayed in American culture as well.

But let’s focus on the woman’s role as wife and mother. Being in a society where this is the ideal role for their daughters, these women pass on their family values and expectations onto their daughters, training them from a young age to immolate them. (Not unlike any other culture.) This is reinforced even in their formal education; the equivalent of home economics is taught to only women for the entirety of their primary through high school education. Within this specific class, these girls also learn sex education but its focus is preparing them for motherhood. The end goal of sexuality immediately being that of wife and motherhood. With this as the primary direction, female sexuality is considered taboo. The research showed that Japanese society is extremely uncomfortable with this taboo, even going so far as to avoid the use of tampons (choosing sanitary pads) to avoid touching oneself. This extreme aversion can add to the anxiety that naturally accompanies the confusion of going through puberty. On top of this, Japan does not have an official middle ground between girlhood and motherhood. They do not recognize puberty as a stepping stone between the two. This actually explains many over sexualized aspects of Japanese culture; from the young ‘age of consent’ to their Host Clubs and Anime options.

As in American culture, personal wealth is used to display one’s personal comfort and attractiveness to attain the ideal family unit. Women display this through fashion and beauty, spending in some respects more time and money on these aspects than American women do. (This could also be due to Japanese women not having to juggle career and family and therefore can spend more time and detail in this area.) But the report does not see this as a huge influence, at least not on its own. In American culture, thinness equates an unnaturally unattainable ideal of beauty and is a primary focus with disordered eating and can be the main driving factor to individual happiness and personal wealth. But in Japanese culture, it’s in conjunction with the overall attractiveness she possesses. This means that it’s one aspect of how good of a match she will make for a potential husband. (Not only is she beautiful but she will raise children and contribute to society as a wife.)

In societies where femininity and sexuality are seen as ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean’, girls who suddenly find themselves and their bodies changing may reject the change. Fasting for weight loss allows them to retain a childlike appearance. In this way, thinness and disordered eating helps delay the maturation and transition from child to mother.

The concluding research results show that the risk factors for disordered eating in Japan are the following: adolescent to young adult women, and to a lesser extend the individuals beauty ideal. But the report acknowledges that their research is biased in that they base it against known Western cultures. To truly understand the factors involved, the research team must be a part of the culture it’s testing against.



Pike, Kathleen & Borovoy, Amy. ‘The Rise of Eating Disorders in Japan: Issues of Culture and Limitations of the Model of “Westernization”.’ Web. Aug. 28 2013.


© Kana Kennedy, Kennedy Info Sec, and , 2011 – 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kana Kennedy and Kennedy Info Sec with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.