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Cult Med Psychiatry. 2004 Dec;28(4):493-531.

The rise of eating disorders in Japan: issues of culture and limitations of the model of "westernization".

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Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, NY 10032, USA.


As the first non-Western nation in contemporary history to become a major industrialized economic power, Japan is central to the debate on cultural relativism in psychiatric nosologies, and the study of eating disorders in Japan contributes to the complex discussion of the impact of culture and history on the experience, diagnosis and treatment of such disorders (R. Gordon 2001; Palmer 2001). Without question, the rise in eating disorders in Japan correlated with increasing industrialization, urbanization, and the fraying of traditional family forms following World War II. While the case of Japan confirms that the existence of eating disorders appears to be linked with these broader social transformations, it also points to the importance of specific cultural and historical factors in shaping the experience of eating disorders. In this article, we explore two particular dimensions of culture in contemporary Japan: (1) gender development and gender role expectations for females coming of age; and (2) beauty ideals and the role of weight and shape concerns in the etiology of eating disorders. Our analysis of these dimensions of culture, and the data accruing from empirical and qualitative research, reveal limitations to the model of "Westernization" and call for a more culturally sensitive search for meaning in both describing and explaining eating disorders in Japan today.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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