Papers & Essays


My four-year-old daughter, K., had been attending pre-school in America for only a couple weeks when her teacher called me aside one afternoon at pick-up time.

"Earlier today K. was very wound-up and loud. Then this afternoon she just kept staring off into space and couldn't finish her project." She looked at me with concerned expectation. When I did not offer any explanation immediately, but looked at K. with a furrowed brow and returned the hug she was giving me, the teacher said, "Well, I just wanted to let you know," in a way that made it clear this behavior was not appreciated, and that as her mother I should find the reason for it and stop it as soon as possible.

Searching for a Source

Yet I was really more concerned for K. herself than about her classroom behavior or interaction with her teacher. We had just moved to the States from Japan less than a month before, and we were all anticipating the arrival of K.'s new baby brother within the next couple weeks. Several possibilities for her behavior went through my mind. My initial thought was that her behavior was a result of a combination of these factors, and yet - was it parental instinct that told me? - something else seemed amiss.

I continued to wonder about the source of this behavior as other people pointed it out to me. My father, K.'s grandpa, observed her moodiness: at times elated, literally bouncing off of surfaces around her; at times withdrawn, not wanting even to say hello, draping her limp body over the arms of a chair, across her bed, on the floor.

The Answer Comes on a Plate

Ironically, her American mom (myself) tried to "put out the fire with gasoline" as the saying goes. When she seemed depressed physically and mentally, I took her to the French bakery and cafe around the corner from our house in New Orleans, thinking a little sweet would cheer her up and give her some energy. I believe it would be true to say that this idea would be fairly typical of the average American mom. Many American families make a ritual of going out for ice cream or a pastry after school on Fridays or some evening during the week.

It was at the cake shop that K. solved the errant behavior mystery for me, literally giving me the answer on a plate.

     "Mom, I'm done. You can have the rest," she said, pushing it toward me. On her plate were the substantial remains of the blueberry tart she had ordered. She had eaten all the berries off the top and left the custard cream and cookie crust untouched.
     "What's wrong? Do you feel sick?" A child not finishing their dessert? In America, this is usually a sign of acute illness.
     "No, it's just too sweet," she answered.

Suddenly I realized that her pattern of behavior - an almost hyperactive period followed by a listless despondency - followed exactly my image of a "sugar high" and the subsequent "sugar low". Over the next few days a casual survey of snacks at nursery school revealed an array of cookies interspersed with sweet egg bread and fruit juice or even a sugary breakfast cereal.

Even people who have not lived in both countries are probably aware that "sweets" in Japan tend to be less sweet than American foods in the same category. There are many reasons, some of them the traditional cuisine and diet, readily available ingredients and cost of production. However, even in this age of globalization, the result is that even where the same type of product is available on store shelves (carefully placed at children's eye-level in both countries), there are significant differences that result in children generally consuming much less sugar in Japan.

Same Food, Different Countries

Take, for example, gummies, one of K.'s favorite candies. Upon our return to Japan, I conducted a completely biased and utterly un-random sampling of gummies from both countries based on what was in our cupboard at home. In our suitcase we had brought from the U.S. a box of "Brand A" gummies manufactured by one of the biggest food companies in America, and also a bag of "Brand J" gummies, manufactured in Nagoya, Japan. However, since we bought the "Brand J" Japanese gummies at an Asian food market in New Orleans, the nutrition information label is standardized for the U.S., making product comparison with the "Brand A" gummies quite easy.

In fact, the nutrition information tells us that there are 13 grams of sugar in 25 grams of "Brand A" gummies, putting the sugar content at just over 50%. 25 grams is the amount in one packet, the box containing ten of these little bags that can be easily given to a child who will then consume the whole thing as these packets cannot be resealed. That's thirteen grams of sugar the child will consume in as much time as it takes to eat the packet, perhaps five or ten minutes. The "Brand J" Japanese gummies actually have a lot more sugar: 30 grams in 40 grams of gummies. Yet because of the packaging the actual amount a child is likely to consume is greatly reduced; in the Japanese package each gummy is wrapped individually. Even though the Japanese gummies are 75% sugar, each gummy only weighs five grams so the child is getting less than four grams of sugar.

Perhaps the reader is thinking, but will the child be satisfied with only one gummy? In my completely biased and utterly un-random experience of one, the unequivocal answer is a resounding "Yes!" In fact, in my personal experience, a child is sometimes satisfied just to carry around a snack in an individual wrapper for a time, and may eventually put it down without consuming it. The problem of needless and excessive wrapping may be of great concern to environmentalists, but this mother is equally concerned about the internal environment of her child's body.

Nutrition Information for Parents and Caregivers

When K. started nursery school in Japan at fourteen months of age, every month we were provided with a menu of the lunches and snacks she would get at school. Along with these menus there was always a very detailed one-page explanation of some point regarding health or nutrition, whether it was brushing teeth and the proper method of hand-washing, or the dietary benefits of soy beans. School lunches made good use of traditional Japanese foods, and the accompanying information sheets reflected this also, explaining the benefits of sea vegetables and miso bean paste, the role that rice plays in a balanced meal, and other points that were especially helpful for this American mother.

Then, one month when K. was two or three, the monthly informational sheet was about sugar. The amounts were all in grams, and the suggestions included drastically limiting 100% fruit juice, a concept very foreign to me. Some American dieticians have started suggesting limits on 100% juice intake for children, but for my generation in America it was considered a health food regardless of the amount of sugar it contained because it was natural and had many vitamins. I had fruit juice to drink with every meal when I was a child and was taught to think of it as much healthier than the soft drinks many of my childhood friends drank.

To make sense of the information, I turned to Mrs. Nishikawa, the nutritionist and head of the kitchen at K.'s nursery school. How could I make sure K. did not get too much sugar? Should I cut it out completely? What about days when she had a sweet dessert for dinner? Such a barrage of questions in my foreigner's Japanese would have made a less confident person panic.

Mrs. Nishikawa fixed me with her grandmotherly smile as she listened to my numerous queries. Then she took a deep breath and explained the whole thing very clearly.

"Try to make sure that no food has more than four grams of sugar per serving. That is, there can be more than four grams of sugar in the whole meal, but much more than that would make a single food very sweet, and we don't want them to get used to that taste." This was when K. was two or three years old. I recently checked with Mrs. Nishikawa again, and she suggested that six would be an acceptable upper limit for an older child, but not on a daily basis. "You want to balance each meal as well as you can. If you are going to have something sweet for dessert, have a meal that uses little or no added sugar. If you have something with sugar in it - like Chinese sweet and sour pork - for the meal, then the dessert can be fruit. Vegetables that are naturally sweet, like sweet potatoes, do not need any extra sugar, especially if they are baked as that brings out the natural sweetness."

Some Japanese readers may find this information very matter-of-fact, but for me having been raised on an American diet, it was a watershed.

Same Habits, but Different Food Makes a Difference

Yet old habits die hard. This American mother still gives her beloved daughter sweets, to reward, to cheer up, to celebrate just another wonderful day together. However, here in Japan, that piece of cake becomes mitarashi dango or a sakura mochi. Checking a recipe for sakura mochi I found that each one has about four grams of sugar, just as her nursery school nutritionist advised. K. enjoys eating it with a small manjyu pick: larger than a toothpick and smaller than a cake fork, it makes the small dessert last longer and seem larger. She does not ask for a second one.


Sarah Ogawa

Sarah Wittenbrink Ogawa first came to Japan in high school as a short-term exchange student. After spending her junior year of college at Doshisha University, she returned to graduate from Smith College in Massachusetts. She moved back to Japan in 1992, where she has worked at a number of schools and in television. She is a faculty member at Doshisha International High School in Kyoto, where she lives with her Japanese husband and their two children. She has done graduate work in both science and the humanities, and holds a Master's Degree from the University of California.
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