Today we’re taking a look at the claim that it is illegal to be overweight in Japan. Is this claim real or a hoax?
There is a law in effect requiring some citizens to be measured every year, with certain steps mandated for those who exceed the recommended waist size.
There is no direct punishment, however, for individuals who are deemed overweight in Japan.
The law is officially known as the Standard Concerning Implementation Special Health Examinations and Special Public Health Guidance. It is more commonly known as “metabo law,” named after “metabolic syndrome” which is Japan’s official name for obesity. The law became effective in April 2008 and added a new waist measurement requirement to the existing annual checkups required of all 40-75 year olds by local governments and employers.
Men with waists measuring more than 33.5 inches or women with waists measuring more than 35.5 inches are considered “at risk” and are referred to counseling, email and phone monitoring and correspondence, along with motivational support. There is no fine or penalty for those who exceed the recommended measurements.
Some citizens complained of the embarrassment they felt when exposing their stomachs while being measured, so the government decided to allow patients to remain fully clothed and deduct 1.5 centimeters from their final measurement.
Local governments and employers must maintain a minimum of 65% participation in the program and meet specific guidelines. The first goal was a 10% reduction in obesity rates by 2012, with a 25% goal by the year 2015. Over 50 million Japanese are expected to be measured each year.
Now that 2015 is history, it isn’t clear if or when the Japanese government will reveal whether or not the original goal was met.
There is no penalty or punishment for individuals. The law is aimed at pressuring companies and local governments. Employers unable to meet the guidelines will be forced to pay nearly 10% higher payments into the national health insurance program. This can equate to millions of dollars for large corporations. Computer manufacturer NEC originally stated that it could face fines reaching $19 million under the policy.
The annual waist measurements have prompted some people to crash diet in the weeks leading up to their yearly checkup. Some companies offer their employees free gym memberships or special diet plans. There has also been an increase in the sale of health products related to the metabo law.
Despite the lack of individual punishment, the law has had an impact on some individuals. Those who are overweight and seeking employment may be deemed less desirable by potential employers. It is also unclear whether or not an individual can legally be fired for being overweight.
Mary Ann Hauert, an executive with Sunstar, a Japanese manufacturer of oral hygiene products, said that participation in weight loss programs for overweight employees could be mandatory should their employer face fines.
A common question raised in the discussion of the metabo law is that of sumo wrestlers. The law only applies to people between 40 and 75 years old, so the vast majority of sumo wrestlers will not be measured during their careers. Kyokutenho Masaru, for example was the oldest wrestler to win a top division sumo championship at the age of 37.
Another question which has not been properly addressed is how to make exceptions for individuals who are unusually tall, muscular, or have other physical anomalies or conditions (such as a thyroid problem) which would prevent them from meeting the guidelines.
Debate surrounding the law has brought up several points which critics say point to flaws in the current system:
- The law does not address childhood obesity
- Measurements of the waist may not always give an accurate picture of a person’s body fat
- Less than 50% of people were attending the required checkups
- Only about 12% of people who received counseling took the advice or acted on it.
- Companies may discriminate against overweight employees
Below is a 2008 CNN report on this law.
To say it is “illegal” to be overweight in Japan is a mischaracterization of the law. It has been referred to as a “fat tax” which may be closer to reality. The Japanese government issued guidelines and goals related to overweight citizens, with penalties for companies who do not meet those goals. Individuals are not punished or fined in any way, although overweight people may be subject to increased pressure to lose weight by by employers and fellow workers. There also may be discrimination against overweight people seeking jobs.
What do you think of the Japanese metabo law? Is it a good idea or are there too many potential abuses to make it practical?
- The Fat’s on Fire: Curbing Obesity in Japan (Boston University School of Public Health: May 29, 2011)
- Fat in Japan? You’re breaking the law (Global Post: November 10, 2009)
- Japan, Seeking Trim Waists, Measures Millions (New York Times: June 13, 2008)
- Japan Cracks Down on Waistlines (US News: June 4, 2008)
Updated January 2, 2016
Originally published May 2013