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Michio Okumoto, Urasoe City Council Member, 66, takes a break from his daily swiming exercise at the Majun Land recreation center.
Michio Okumoto, Urasoe City Council Member, 66, takes a break from his daily swiming exercise at the Majun Land recreation center. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)
Michio Okumoto, Urasoe City Council Member, 66, takes a break from his daily swiming exercise at the Majun Land recreation center.
Michio Okumoto, Urasoe City Council Member, 66, takes a break from his daily swiming exercise at the Majun Land recreation center. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)
Swimmers exercise at the Majun Land, a recreation center in Urasoe. The city started a weight loss campaign April 1.
Swimmers exercise at the Majun Land, a recreation center in Urasoe. The city started a weight loss campaign April 1. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)

While Dr. Makoto Suzuki sat in his Okinawa International University office worrying about the island’s unhealthy fast-food obsession, Aiko Suzuki, who is not related to him, was busy cooking up a batch of fried chicken in the school’s busy cafeteria.

Fried chicken and hamburgers are students’ favorites, said the cafeteria manager, “especially fried chicken.” However, she said, students are not totally indifferent to health.

“When they are freshmen, they eat anything they feel like eating, such as fried stuff or beef,” said Suzuki, who’s served such fare to students for 25 years. “But by the time they become juniors or seniors, they seem to become more health-conscious.”

Perhaps it’s because after years of exposure to Dr. Suzuki’s research on the island’s traditional healthy diet and culture, students absorb some of his teaching.

Then again, the aroma of burgers frying on the grill is hard to ignore.

“Sometimes, we add tofu to the hamburgers,” she said. “But when the menu says ‘Tofu Hamburger,’ we sell less.”

At the pool

At Majun Land, a Urasoe recreation facility that opened in January, the pool was alive with people stroking and kicking extra pounds away.

Since the indoor fitness center’s opening, an average of 200 people visit daily, said Taeko Katsumata, assistant general manger. It has five swimming pools, exercise and weight rooms and a Jacuzzi and conveniently is next to the city’s athletic park.

Most who use the facility are women, Katsuma said, “probably 70 to 80 percent.”

Michio Okumoto, 66, a city council member, was one of the few men swimming on a recent weekday.

“I am one of the supporters of the mayor’s campaign,” he said. “I have been coming here to swim since the opening. With just a little bit of effort to set aside the time, it is possible to exercise every day.”

He said he spends about 2.5 hours at the pool daily and has lost about three pounds so far.

On a Marine base

At Camp Foster fast food restaurants, Marines’ Japanese wives say they fight a continuing battle to keep their families healthy.

Ryoko Contrevas was sitting with her husband, Simon, a retired Marine, at a Popeye’s.

“At home we eat mostly Japanese food,” she said, glancing apologetically at the fried chicken on the table. She said she changed her husband’s diet when they married 31 years ago but they’d just finished banking nearby and Popeye’s was tempting.

“This is one of the exceptions we do once in a while,” she said.

“When we first got married, he could not eat fish at all, not even grilled, let alone raw fish,” Ryoko said. “But I eventually converted him to a Japanese diet.”

“I had no choice,” Simon joked. “Actually, I like Japanese food. It’s more healthy.”

Ryoko said she always ensured a healthy Japanese meal was on the family table at 5 p.m. daily — a tradition carried on by her daughters in California. “They even cook goya [a bitter Okinawa squash] over there,” she said.

At a nearby Burger King, Yuko Cross, the wife of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Nielson Cross, was having lunch with their three children.

Avoiding American fast food is hard, she said, but they try. “About two-thirds of our dinners are Japanese dishes," she said. She said that her husband of nine years now eats most of Japanese food — except natto, fermented soybeans and tofu.

“Both of us and our children prefer Japanese food because it is healthier,” she said. “I am glad that my husband likes Japanese food.”

With a little kitchen magic she also is able to slip in healthy ingredients he does not like, such as tofu.

“I mix tofu in chicken meatballs, for instance,” she said.

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