The country where being overweight is illegal.

A Japanese man being measured




It’s an interesting policy idea on how to beat the obesity epidemic. Just make it illegal to be overweight.

You might smirk at the idea as unrealistic – but in a world where 500 million people are obese one county has done just that.

Pack on the pounds – into the slammer!

(Well not quite…)

In Japan, lawmakers passed what’s now known as the “metabo law” in 2008.

It is not a country you normally associate with obesity. In fact, the OECD ranks Japan with only 3% population obesity – one of the least obese developed countries.

Compare this with Australia that has around 60% of Australian adults classified as overweight or obese. More than 25% of these fell into the obese category – that’s 3.3 million Australians.

But a growing concern in Japan over the spiralling health costs of an ageing population – which would only be greater if afflicted by metabolic syndrome – caused the Government to act.

Metabolic syndrome is a combination of such symptoms as problems with cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. It is likely to eventually lead to a stroke, heart attack and diabetes.

The Japanese policy, called ‘Metabo law’ is, in theory, simple – stay below a government-mandated waistline or face the consequences.


It is policed through an annual mandatory check up of the waist measurements of 40-75 year-olds – that’s over 56 million waistlines, or about 44 percent of the entire population.

56 million Japanese are checked

Both local governments and employers require the test.

In the test both men and women are required to stay under a waist circumference of 33.5 (85cm) and 35.4 (90cm) inches.

The penalties for failure to comply aren’t particularly harsh for the individual. They are required to attend a combination of counselling sessions, monitoring through phone and email correspondence, and motivational support.

There are more repercussions however for business.

Employers or local government are required to ensure a minimum of 65% participation, with an overall goal to cut the country’s obesity rates by 25% by year 2015. Failure to meet these goals results in fines of almost 10% of current health payments.

Companies with more than a certain percentage of over-the-waist-limit employees are slapped with a fine.

Victoria Kim writing for says that:

NEC, Japan’s largest maker of personal computers, says it’s possible to incur as much as $19 million in penalties for failing to meet their targets. Matsushita, which makes Panasonic products, has to measure the waistlines of at least 80% of its employees, along with their families and retirees. The company distributes “metabo check” towels that double as tape measures to employees to ensure adherence to the waistline limits come time for employees’ annual checkups.

The law – dubbed the ‘metabo law’ comes from the phrase metabolic syndrome. Over the years the buzzword ‘metabo’ has replaced obesity. It is now a part of the daily lexicon.


In fact the idea of a ‘fat law’ seems to be so simple you wonder why other governments don’t follow suit. But in practice the law may not be so easy to enforce.

Doctor Hiroyuki Hayashi who runs an ‘anti-metabo’ clinic. (Jenny Craig anyone?) told the AFP Blogs that the law was a failure.

Will the Japanese act so decisively on cigarettes?

“For me, it’s a failure because it’s not been effective,” he said, citing health ministry figures that show of the 52 million or so people aged between 40 and 74 who are meant to undergo annual exams, less than half do so, about 23 million. “Out of these people, a little more than four million are beyond the limits, so are given written recommendations. But only 12.3 percent of these people follow through on this medical advice.”

Despite these statistics, something is keeping the Japanese slim – whether it is the layout of their cities that encourages walking and movement, the complexities of their diet, or the government intervention.

It is an irony though that the country so concerned about metabolic syndrome, has the third largest number of per capita cigarette consumption outside Eastern Europe.

You wonder whether the Government will take similarly tough steps to combat that epidemic?