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"Japanese Women Don't Get Old Or Fat"- good idea, bad execution

First printing's cover.
Jacob Wojnar

Japanese Women Don't Get Old Or Fat


Every so often, the world handles surges of fad diets. From Atkins to grapefruit to paleolithic, there's always something new and kitschy to try in the search for a foolproof weight loss technique. This one's got a good tagline with a ring of truth. It's “Japanese Women Don't Get Old Or Fat”, by Naomi Moriyama.

This is the tale of the author, her husband, and their joint desire to share their experiences with Japanese home cooking. It made them feel healthier, happier, and more energetic, as well as giving them something to research- the reasons why it might do so, and the history behind it.

Opening with a wave of statistics about the Japanese lifestyle, the book touts their long lifespan, low rates of obesity and heart disease, low healthcare spending, and many other things. I'm always suspicious when statistics are used as primers, because you can use said statistics to say virtually anything you want. 78% of statistics are made up on the spot because they sound so effective!

Obligatory attempt at Logos aside, the next pages turn to Pathos. First comes a dramatic monologue in honor of the culinary skill, creativity, and devotion of the author's mother. As any mother should, she gives all for her children, even if they don't always appreciate it at the time. After that comes a stern diatribe centering on how devoted the Japanese are to freshness- foods not only dated, but *timed* at the supermarkets, and even 7-11s stocking tasty, healthy bento instead of prefab salads and suspect sandwiches. Then a detour to detail the lifestyle of the glorious and rustic countryside, how everything is so vibrantly flavored, fresh, and full of life!

It feels so transparent and false somehow, and I couldn't put my finger on why. But the understanding came later.

While the “How to Start Your Tokyo Kitchen” chapter is handy for the novice, the truth is that a good cook already knows what equipment they need to cook dinner, and if they don't have it, improvising isn't hard. Even some of the later recipes call for Japanese-exclusive cooking gear, and the author tells you how to jury-rig one. Why not add it to the starting list of equipment in the early chapter?

Time is spent emphasizing the importance of at-table garnishes and individual seasoning, in accordance with the Japanese tendency not to individually plate, but allow self-service from platters. That's perfectly acceptable, but it gets tedious and annoying when a portion of every recipe's ingredient list has 'to use at the table' as a caveat. Such a concept needs explaining one time. After that's done, make a separate section in the recipes for the garnishes and table condiments. It's easy to confuse a rookie cook by piling all the ingredients in one column without direction. Considering the prospective readership, I find this to be a glaring error.

A full third of the book is devoted to what's termed “The Seven Pillars of Japanese Home Cooking”. Fish, Vegetables, Rice, Soy, Noodles, Tea, and Fruit are the vaunted pillars, and while each subsection has several anecdotes and a handful of recipes, most of them are rather banal. For a book that centers around what they term 'healthy eating', the number of recipes that use, say, refined sugar as an ingredient is more than a little bothersome.

To counteract that, there are stories aplenty that seek to emphasize the healthy, life-giving qualities of the other ingredients. There's an entire tale that centers around brown rice- the barest film of historical reference is given to the fantastic tale of Tomoe Gozen, which is used to create a veneer of confidence in the nutritional superiority of brown rice. I agree with the sentiment entirely, but the method is shifty at best.

I really wanted to like this book, but I just can't bring myself to. It's trying to be a cookbook and reference text, but it reads like a memoir, denying it the aura of legitimacy and believability that's so very necessary to creating a referential work. It's a collection of vignettes, loosely tied together around the idea of Japanese home cooking being healthy and happiness inducing. It might be true, but it's something a person has to try for themselves.

If you trust the book and the author's message, feel free to trust the recipes. Some of the 40-odd recipes sprinkled throughout the book might serve you well, and there is a recipe index in the back. I don't, however, have any recommendations on which ones are any good.

As for me though, I'm not going to bother. This is going straight back to the library.

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