- Kaki Okumura is a Japanese wellness writer and illustrator who lived in the United States until she was 12 years old.
- Okumura struggled with obesity and tried numerous diet tactics, but none of them worked.
- Her book Wa: The Art of Balance, due out in March, focuses on 4 Japanese practices that have helped her.
As said, this essay is based on a conversation with Kaki Okumura, the author of “Wa: The Art of Balance,” a book to be released March 14. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I remember looking down at the family photo and feeling my heart sink. I couldn’t help it. I was clearly the only one who was overweight.
I’m Japanese, but growing up in the US until I was 12, I faced a health challenge that many other Americans face: obesity.
If my family had shared these issues with me, I might not have felt so alone on my journey.
But my family just didn’t struggle as much as I did, perhaps because most of them lived in Japan — a country that leads the way in longevity and has very low obesity rates.
My parents were kind and never shamed me because of my body, but I still couldn’t help but feel intense pressure to change my appearance. So I began a variety of dieting tactics — trying everything from calorie restriction and intermittent fasting to low-carb. Some worked with varying degrees of success, but none were sustainable.
At least not until I moved to Japan.
I always had the image in my head that the people of Japan ate very healthily—they didn’t eat fried foods, meat, or ice cream—and that most of their meals consisted of rice, fish, and steamed vegetables.
But after living there, I realized that Japan is like any other developed country: there are snacks, fast food and sweets. It was clear that the Japanese also enjoyed these foods regularly.
So what’s the secret? It’s in balance.
Since following these 4 principles, I have never had any problems or worries about my diet.
One of the first things people will say about the food visiting Japan is how small the portions are. If you dine out in Japan, you can probably eat it up in one sitting, while in the US, you’ll probably want a take-away box.
But those moderate portions are one of the main reasons people in Japan often eat whatever they want — and many without strict exercise routines. When you eat in moderation, nothing need be off limits and you can relax with a birthday cake or steak to celebrate a promotion. As a result, we feel less stressed while eating.
I realized that sustainable healthy eating isn’t about willpower or self-discipline, it’s about eating the foods we love in moderation.
When you visit a Japanese restaurant in Japan, you’ll often come across a set menu consisting of rice, miso soup, a protein dish, and some vegetable side dishes. Dishes range from grilled fish and steamed spinach to fried chicken and a salad.
The point isn’t so much the actual dish itself, but that there are so many different dishes in one meal. This way people can easily get a variety of nutrients without having too much of one thing.
We need carbs, fats, fiber and protein, but instead of thinking about how we put them together, Japanese style balances each meal with different mini-dishes.
The variety also keeps meals interesting so you don’t have to limit or give up anything and still eat whatever your body needs.
I’ve found that vegetables are often treated as a necessary evil in the US. There is no shortage of recipes and articles such as “Making vegetables tasty” or “Vegetable dishes that you absolutely want to eat”.
With the assumption that vegetables don’t taste good, we end up with recipes that do everything they can to mask the taste – often with large amounts of salt, oil or sugar.
In contrast, in Japan, the narrative around vegetables is the opposite: that they are delicious.
It is common for vegetable dishes to be lightly seasoned, often steamed or even raw, like the shredded cabbage often served with tonkatsu, Japanese pork cutlet.
Popular Japanese films, such as Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, have entire scenes of children enjoying simple, fresh vegetables.
As I began to realize that the ingredients we use to cook are delicious, I focused on enhancing and complementing those flavors rather than masking them.
Sometimes the most important ingredient is the one you leave out.
This principle was the most difficult for me to implement, but it was the most important.
If I ate too much, I would end up feeling bad. At times I may feel guilty, ashamed, or weak-willed.
One idea that helped me in moments like this was the Japanese expression “kuchisabishii”. It’s a commonly used expression that translates directly to “lonely mouth,” but it refers to boredom from snacking or when we eat without intention.
But kuchisabishii is inherently less critical than terms like binge eating or compulsive overeating because it recognizes that boredom eating, like loneliness, is a very natural emotion.
Instead of sitting around in guilt and shame, forgiving experiences where we may have eaten a little too much, we can recognize and move on with kindness.
Living in Japan taught me that eating healthy is less about self-discipline or willpower, which aren’t helpful in building lifelong habits, and more about finding a balance. Food is not just fuel, it can be central to our culture, traditions, identity and values.
I will be releasing a book called Wa: The Art of Balance in March of this year. “Wa” – the Japanese word used to describe Japanese things – also means harmony and represents the value of seeking balance in order to live a well-rounded life.