Japan, the home of sushi, seaweed cuisine and the world’s longest life expectancy, is rearing a generation of young sugar addicts who are destined to spend their adolescence fighting obesity and acne, according to a report that paints a devastating picture of the country’s health crisis.
In Tokyo, the fast food of choice is a towering concoction of four hamburger patties, with all the trimmings, crammed into a single bun and children happily line-up around the block for a calorie-laden doughnut.
But while the queues outside the Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the Shinjuku area of the capital, which opened recently, point to an extraordinary Japanese success story for the fast-food industry, they also symbolise a health disaster in the making for consumers.
Up to a fifth of Japanese children aged from five to 12 who are overweight suffer, or are at risk of developing, metabolic syndrome, a range of symptoms including high cholesterol and large waistlines, according to a study released last week. Left untreated, it can lead to serious illnesses such as strokes and heart disease. Nationwide, the condition afflicts an estimated 23 million Japanese, the health ministry warns.
Although middle-aged ‘salarymen’ are at greatest risk, children as young as nine are now suffering from type-2 diabetes, a phenomenon unheard of in Japan only a few years ago. Experts say the looming health crisis is being fomented by a surge in demand for highly calorific food sold by the top US food chains.
When Krispy Kreme opened people waited more than an hour to sample its doughnuts – some of which pack several hundred calories each. An estimated 10,000 people visited the restaurant in the first three days.
Cold Stone Creamery, which serves up portions of ice cream mixed with fruit, nuts and biscuits, opened three new outlets in Japan last month and plans to open two more this month, while Burger King is about to launch its second assault on the Japanese market. Last week McDonald’s in Japan reported monthly sales of just over 43bn yen (about £183m), the highest in its 36 years in the country. The US chain sold 1.7 million Mega Macs – four burger patties in a bun – in four days in Japan, as outlets struggled to keep up with demand.
Experts blame adults for setting a poor example. ‘Ultimately it is up to parents to take greater responsibility for what their children eat,’ says Fumi Hayashi, a researcher at the National Institute of Health and Nutrition.
‘The problem is that they are just as guilty of bad habits rather than eating a balanced diet.’
Now diseases associated with obesity will strike Japan faster, and with greater ferocity, than anything seen in the West. ‘When you have rapid transformations in lifestyles, that’s when you see the worst health outcomes,’ says Tim Gill, Asia-Pacific regional co-ordinator for the International Obesity Task Force.
The rapid changes taking place in the Japanese diet, combined with a greater susceptibility to metabolic illness, will lead to dramatic rises in strokes, diabetes and hypertension, he warned. ‘The potential is there for a disaster.’
In the absence of government intervention – limiting TV advertising aimed at children, or banning special promotions – the fast-food industry is enjoying unprecedented success in Japan. Held responsible for contributing to health problems of American and British children, the same firms are setting their sights on a lucrative market in Asia, the world’s most populous region.
Krispy Kreme’s marketing machine, combined with the mouth-watering sight of freshly made doughnuts emerging on a conveyor belt, is proving irresistible to Japanese teens. ‘Krispy Kreme is the epitome of how to cram maximum calories into the smallest amount of food,’ Gill says. ‘All you can do with doughnuts is to point out what crap they are.’
More than 1,300 people across the region have had weight reduction surgery since the beginning of last year, according to the Asia Pacific Bariatric [Obesity] Surgical Society.
Guardian News and Media Limited