Review: WA – The art of balance

Kaki Okumu is a Japanese-American nutritional therapy practitioner. She writes on Japanese food, fitness, lifestyle and health. Wa – the art of balance is a self-help book that aims to answer the question: How can we live healthfully?

With a background of growing up across two cultures, she challenges the mindset that sees health as calorie-counting and going to the gym, and underlines the interrelationship between our physical and mental health. Her delicate water colours and Japanese recipes are scattered through the book adding an extra layer of interest.

In Japanese, Wa means the art of balance and she frames health through four essential pillars, each as important as the other: it’s a matter of support and live well is to live in balance

  1. Nourish
  2. Move
  3. Rest
  4. Socialise

Kaki Okumu uses research and her own personal experience to make recommendations for each ‘pillar’.

In Nourish she looks at portion size: in Japan, a Burger King small fries is only 75g, while in the US it’s 130g and in the UK 116g. It’s hardly surprising there’s an obesity epidemic in the west while Japan is one of the leading countries for low obesity and also longevity. She criticises the obsession with healthy/unhealthy food. We need balance, variety, smaller portions, and to cook our own food – it’s about being in control of what goes in your body.

In Move she describes how walking is a normal part of life in Japan, and exercise is done for pleasure, not because of a fear of negative consequences. It’s all about regaining quality of life through incorporating movement as a habit, perhaps stretching each day for a few minutes or walking to the shops instead of driving. As with many self-help writers, she talks about how important it is to spend time in nature, and how this is regularly prescribed by doctors.

Exercise that we do not enjoy is exercise we do not continue.

Rest looks at the benefit of slowing down and not always being busy. We kid ourselves that scrolling through social media is restful, but it’s only a distraction. We need to change the idea of rest: engaging in an activity that allows one to feel refreshed or recover strength. Here she recommends a playful mindset to lean into curiosity looking at tiny details and being in the moment – mindfulness in other words. Also caring for our own surroundings. Not necessarily minimalist, but getting rid of clutter, even creating an area in your home for quiet contemplation, in the Buddhist tradition, and cultivating a sense of gratitude.

The final section, Socialise stresses the importance of being with other people. A Harvard study of Adult development found that the most important determinant for happiness and health in participants was the strength of their relationships with their family, friends and community. Kaki Okumu quotes research that shows even small encounters are valuable – talking to the postman or to the shop assistant makes people feel happier and more secure in their community. She also mentions actively listening when we’re in conversation with someone, and the importance of omoiyari: anticipating someone else’s needs. She quotes Japanese fans’ behaviour at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They’d lost the match, but surprised other fans by cleaning their rows and seats with rubbish bags they’d brought themselves. So instead of feeling a sense of loss they felt proud: by shifting our focus we can shape the narrative of how we’re supposed to feel.

My only quibble is with the often repetitive nature of the writing – the book would be two thirds as long if this was addressed. However, I enjoyed Wa – the art of balance and many of the recommendations seem practical. I also found the examples of Japanese words and culture fascinating. I’m keen to try out some of the recipes.

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this book which will be published in the UK in March 2023.

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