Japanese and American public health approaches to preventing population weight gain: A role for paternalism?

Amy Borovoy, Christina A. Roberto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Controlling population weight gain is a major concern for industrialized nations because of associated health risks. Although Japan is experiencing rising prevalence of obesity and overweight, historically they have had and continue to maintain a low prevalence relative to other developed countries. Therefore, Japan provides an interesting case study of strategies to curb population weight gain. In this paper we explore Japanese approaches to obesity and diet through observational and ethnographic interviews conducted between June 2009 and September 2013. Nineteen interviews were conducted at four companies and three schools in Tokyo, as well as at a central Tokyo community health care center and school lunch distribution center. Interviewees included physicians, a Ministry of Health bureaucrat, human resources managers, welfare nurses employed by health insurance organizations, school nurses (also government employees), school nutritionists, and a school counselor. We highlight the role of culture and social norms in encouraging healthful behavior in Japan, focusing on the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare's metabolic syndrome screening program (implemented in 2005) and the Japanese national school lunch program. The Japanese government prescribes optimal body metrics for all Japanese citizens and relies on institutions such as schools and health insurance organizations that are in some instances closely affiliated with the workplace to carry out education. Japan's socio-cultural approach leads us reflect on the cultural and social conditions that make different policy prescriptions more politically feasible and potentially effective. It also provokes us to question whether limited behavioral modifications and "nudging" can lead to broader change in an environment like the United States where there are fewer broadly shared socio-cultural norms regarding acceptable health behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)62-70
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Oct 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


  • Japan
  • Libertarian paternalism
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Nudge
  • Obesity
  • Public health
  • School lunches
  • Workplace interventions


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