In a nation that has only recently engaged in the fight against flab, many middle age men are braving the department stores for a cure, albeit a cosmetic one.

Yoshiko Masuda, a spokeswoman for underwear maker Triumph International Japan, explains that the girdles are designed to keep the stomach tucked in and tighten across the buttocks "because those are the areas that many men are most worried about".

"We have sold more than 2,000 of the two types of girdles for men since we first put them on sale in February, and we're quite surprised at how well they are selling.

"I think that men are overcoming their shyness to buy these items because they are more concerned about their shapes," she says, adding that a typical customer is in his 30s or 40s and that it is "definitely men who purchasing these girdles, not their wives". 

Masuda says that the company is increasing production to meet the unexpected demand and is also working on a lightweight summer version.

Health crisis

The girdles may help in tucking in embarrassing love handles, but are exposing what is fast becoming a health crisis in Japan.

"I think that men are overcoming their shyness to buy these [girdles] because they are more concerned about their shapes"

Yoshiko Masuda, spokeswoman for Triumph International Japan

Dr Daisuke Koya, a professor of endocrinology at Kanazawa Medical University, says Japan is seeing increasing numbers of people who are overweight and clinically obese.

"A lot of people in Japan eat far too much fatty food before they are 20-years-old and junk food has become a staple of our diet," he says.

Koya says changing eating habits - from a largely fish, vegetables and rice diet to meat and fatty foods - is creating a serious impact.

By Western standards, Japan is still a place where the obese stand out, with 24% of people aged over 16 considered to be overweight, compared to 65% in the United States.

But that figure is expected to soar.
  
"I think that in as little as 20 years, as many as 50% of Japanese could be obese - that's not just overweight, but obese," says Koya.
  
No exercise

Dr Yuichi Yamada, an expert on obesity in the department of hygiene at Kanazawa Medical University, believes lack of exercise and modern lifestyles, rather than just diets, may be far more pressing issues.

"Of course it's a problem involving diet, but the average dietary intake of the Japanese has not changed in the last 10 years, so we are eating the same amount of food but because we are doing little or no exercise or physical activities on a daily basis, we're simply not getting rid of it again," he said.
  
Taking the car to work every morning has stopped people from even walking to the bus stop or train station.

Instant communication such as email with clients - or even colleagues in the same building - mean that people no longer need to get up from their desk to do their work.

Dr Daisuke Koya says people
eating fatty foods is the cause

Yasui, 50, is just one of many Japanese at risk of heart disease and other obesity-related issues.

Standing 173cm tall and weighing more than 80kg, he works largely from a computer at his desk from 8am to 6pm and says he rarely needs to get up from his seat and has even fewer chances to exercise.

"I had my company medical a few weeks ago and the doctors suggested that I should make an appointment to come to the Sports Medicine Research Centre at Tokyo's Keio University hospital; this is my first visit," says Yasui, who did not want to give his full name.

"When I was younger, I guess we had a very different diet and I don't just mean junk food," he says. "I used to eat fish and rice more often when I was a boy; now I eat as much bread as rice.
  
"I know I need to lose weight; it's not just a case of too much food, but I need to make sure I do more regular exercise," he adds.

"The doctors here tell me that even something as simple as walking regularly, for between 30 minutes and an hour each day, will have a positive effect."

Obesity-related illnesses
  
It is the positive effect of changing lifestyles and increasing exercise that doctors are hoping will offset the recent sharp rise in illnesses related to obesity, most alarmingly diabetes.

Dr Hajime Maeda, head doctor of the HEC Science Clinic in the Yokohama suburb of Isogo, says Japan is "clearly seeing more cases of diabetes than even 10 years ago, but especially diabetes with complications such as hypertension and renal failure". 

Although deaths from diabetes have fallen in the last decade, the number of people being treated for the disease has leapt more than 50% since 1990, to more than 2 million.
  

"Our diet has changed, but our genes have not, which is why the Japanese are far more susceptible to diabetes than people in the United States or Europe"

Dr Hajime Maeda,
head doctor at HEC Science Clinic

"Traditionally, our food has been high in fibre and low in calories and our genetic make-up meant that the Japanese could maintain their health with that diet," Maeda says.
  
"Now our diet has changed, but our genes have not, which is why the Japanese are far more susceptible to diabetes than people in the United States or Europe," he said. 
  
Maeda's clinic treats 2,200 diabetes patients a month, and he says the disease is striking across the board there.
  
"Twenty years ago, I would never have seen a young person with diabetes," he says. "Now they're here every day for treatment, and it's all because of their diet and lifestyles."

Healthy Japan 21
  
The Japanese government recognises that it has a problem on its hands and the ministry of health, labour and welfare recently began the Healthy Japan 21 campaign to encourage people to live more balanced lives.

The ministry is also working on an exercise guide that will be distributed at clinics and hospitals.
  
And while the government says it is confident that will reverse some of the alarming health trends, others are less optimistic.
  
Dr Fuminori Katsukawa, head of Keio University hospital's Sports Medicine Research Centre, says "our physical activity and diet are decided by the environment in which we live, and that's especially so for young people".

"It is impossible to change people's lifestyles solely through education," he adds.

"There are some patients who are very motivated to lose weight, so it is easy to teach them how to escape from an obesegenic lifestyle - but it is very difficult to change their lives.
  
"I think the situation will definitely be worse in Japan 10 years from now."