Why Japanese women leave behind rice in a sushi bar?

The obsession of physical appearance has led Japanese women to leave rice behind in sushi train restaurants. This phenomenon has caused much backlash in a society which looks at wastefulness in contempt. Accordingly, leaving food behind is a symptom of discrimination towards femininity that the Japanese community needs to resolve.

By Tan Zhi Xin

Sushi is symbolic of Japanese cuisine. It is prepared with two main ingredients – a “neta” topping and “shari”, rice seasoned with salt, sugar and vinegar.

Japanese love their sushi but sushi is heavy in carbohydrates. As such, it is inevitable that their obsession with being thin comes into conflict with their love for sushi. As a result, many Japanese women started the trend of eating only the “neta” while leaving the “shari” behind.

Recently, pictures of rice being left behind on female plates at revolving sushi train restaurants are being circulated online, resulting in public outcry and frustration.

However, such behaviour is not limited to just revolving sushi train restaurants. It has become a trend amongst Japanese women who try to find a balance between maintaining their thin figure and indulging in their sushi craving.

A woman was reportedly asked to leave a customary sushi restaurant after she informed the staff that she was on a carb-free diet and would like her sushi to be served without rice. This is an odd request given that the woman ordered sushi, not sashimi. While many online commenters were harsh in criticising her behaviour, others defended her by saying that many restaurants would be happy to comply so long as she pays the normal price.

Pride and respect

Japanese people take huge pride in the work they do. Hence, leaving rice behind after a meal is considered to be an extremely rude insult towards the person who prepared your meal.

Respect for the environment and nature is also deeply rooted in Japanese culture. There is even a Japanese word, mottainai, to express distaste towards resource wastage. However, mottainai goes beyond a superficial ecological definition.

Mottainai encompasses the idea of respecting farmers and the people who prepare your food. Accordingly, it also serves as a reminder that there are many people throughout the world who do not have rice to eat.

Mottainai is a compound word, made up of mottai and nai. The former refers to the inherent dignity of an object, while the latter indicates an “absence of something”. Thus, together the term alludes to the Japanese notion that every resource is dignified; hence, wasting it is a form of disrespect.

Popularised after World War II, this term also alludes to thriftiness as being the core of Japanese culture. It is precisely this reluctance to waste resources that allowed Japan to quickly develop after WWII and become one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Pride and respect are therefore the essence and a core belief in Japanese culture.

Obsession with appearance

However, it is increasingly clear that pride and respect are taking a backseat in Japanese society today. This does not mean that they are not relevant; they still are. However, they are being overshadowed by Japan’s obsession with appearances.

A recent survey conducted by German market research company GfK shows that out of 22 countries surveyed, Japan ranked the lowest in terms of overall satisfaction with their physical appearance. A whopping 38 percent of Japanese participants indicated that they are either “not at all satisfied” or “not very satisfied” with their appearance.

Subsequently, this obsession with appearance is not at all new to Japan. According to Dr Aya Nishizono-Maher, a psychiatrist specialising in eating disorders at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science and Department of Clinical Child Psychiatry, “Anorexia Nervosa and other eating disorder problems [have] been around in Japan for a long time”. Dr Nishizono-Maher also added that Japan’s first case of an eating disorder was recorded in 1788, well before the first case in the UK.

As Japanese women become slimmer, their obsession with being thin grows even larger. This unhealthy obsession has plagued Japanese society to the extent that even young girls feel the need to stay thin.

According to a government-funded study, 5.0 percent of girls in Tokyo junior schools are found to be suffering from anorexia nervosa. This result is not surprising, considering that many young Japanese women regard petite pop idol Namie Amuro as having the ideal body shape. Amuro weighs less than 91 lbs.

Today, Japan is the country with the largest eating disorder problem. Up to 47.0 percent of Japanese women are at least 10.0 percent under their ideal weight. Consequently, the media plays a huge part in fuelling this obsession, as it constantly praises the virtues of thinness.

But why waste food?

Nonetheless, why has Japan’s obsession with maintaining a slim or thin figure lead to wasting food? Surely, everyone knows that wasting food is disrespectful and unsustainable, and that weight loss can be achieved through exercise, so why waste food? To answer this question, there is a need to look at Japanese lifestyle.

Generally, Japanese people lead a very healthy lifestyle, at least in accordance to their diet. This is because Japanese society consumes a lot of fish, fruits, vegetables, and soy, while fatty meat is avoided. They also practise Hara hachi bunme – a practice that involves eating until they are 80.0 percent full and then waiting for 20 to 30 minutes before deciding if they are still hungry, allowing  Japanese people to eat less than they usually would. Consequently, only 3.5 percent of Japanese are recorded as obese, the lowest rate among developed nations.

The only drawback is that rice is a staple food. While the Japanese favour brown rice, which is considerably lower in carbohydrate than white rice, carbohydrates still make up 55.0 percent of Japanese total calorie intake. This means that weight loss will be difficult despite eating very healthily.

Some Japanese women have resorted to diet pills, which allow them to eat well and remain thin at the same time. However, these pills can be dangerous, and in 2002, it was reported than five Japanese women had died from consuming herbal slimming aids from China, while more than 500 fell ill.

Clearly, the Japanese are aware that artificial slimming methods are unreliable, but at the same time they are not done with their obsession of appearance yet. Thus, leaving rice behind seems like the only way out to many Japanese women wanting a slimmer figure.


Leaving rice behind after a meal is not criminal, neither is their obsession with a slim figure. Afterall, it boils down to personal preference. But taken together, they are symptomatic of a larger societal issue – discrimination towards femininity.

Japanese women’s obsession with their thin figure goes beyond pure vanity, as a women’s value in the society is largely determined by her looks and age.

Thus, this is a form of discrimination towards femininity because as a woman, there is a strong need to always look youthful in order to remain relevant in Japan’s highly patriarchal society. Accordingly, while it is true that Japanese society is developing quickly, their awareness of gender equality is not developing, as Japan still has a long way to go to achieve an equal society for women.