’Sweeten’ Up Your Japanese Vocab with ’Betsubara’: Our Separate Dessert Stomach

  • In English, we have the phrase “there’s always room for dessert.” In Japanese, there’s a word for the room – “betsubara”. Betsubara is made up of a combination of the kanji for “separate” (別, “betsu”) and “stomach” (腹, “hara”, or “bara” with dakuten in this case), so it literally means “separate stomach”. It’s the place where all that dessert goes to after you’ve declared you just can’t eat another bite.

    How I first came across the word

    I adore this word, not only for its meaning but for the fond memory it conjures up for me about how I first learned the word. Soon after I first came to Japan as a teacher, I had lunch with three other ladies who worked at my school (two nurses and one science assistant). As none of them spoke much English, I tried my best to get by with my limited Japanese. After a delicious, savory meal, I was able to say “o-naka ga ippai” (お腹がいっぱい), meaning “I’m full”. However, soon after I said it, our desserts came, and I immediately perked up in anticipation of taking a bite. The others laughed and said “betsubara!”.

    I was so happy to finally have a word to describe this phenomenon after so long! I’ve always said I had a “dessert pocket”, but this phrase isn’t widespread in English. However, in Japan, there’s a legitimate word for it, and I was so happy to add it to my vocabulary (my new friends in turn also delighted in learning the phrase “dessert pocket” – perhaps it’ll catch on in Japan even though it hasn’t in the US?).

    Betsubara – Scientific Reality?

    So, we don’t really have a betsubara, or do we? The informative, but short-lived, Kaitai Shin Show (解体新ショー, 2007-2009) broadcasted an episode highlighting evidence of such a thing! Ok, so it wasn’t really evidence of an actual betsubara – we don’t really have a separate stomach like a cow does – but there is a physiological explanation for the feeling of having one. It basically comes down to this: our stomachs are flexible and can change shape in the face of different stimuli, which can effectively create more room for dessert.

    In the episode, a gastrointestinal specialist, Shigeki Koyama gave a remarkable demonstration of this. After stuffing their bellies full of French cuisine, two women were put into MRI machines to show the shape of their full stomachs. They were then shown a piece of cake, and viewers were able to see how the shapes of their stomachs changed. The remarkable difference in one of the women’s stomachs is shown above.

    As you can see, the shape of the stomach is much different. The area of the stomach closer to where it connects to the small intestine is much narrower and is shaped like an arrow while the area at the top of the stomach appears smaller. It looks as if the stomach is pushing food out to make room for more – cake, in this case. Researchers in Norway, Dr. Arnold Berstad, and Dr. Jørgen Valeur have also found that sugar stimulates a biological pathway that causes stomach muscles to relax and let more food in. The science is in – there is always room for dessert!

    So why do we have a betsubara?

    The most commonly held belief in science is that our ancestors weren’t always sure when their next meal would come, so it is useful to have mechanisms that allow us to take advantage of food while it is available – particularly food that is high in energy (i.e. full of sugar and fat). There’s a lot of brain chemistry behind this as well (For a quick overview, check out this video from ASAP Science.) Today, at least in first world nations, most of us are privileged enough not to have to worry about this, so instead we have tendencies to over-indulge. It can be nice upon occasion, but for the sake of our health, we should be careful!

    Side note: Betsubara is most commonly used for desserts, but in Japan I found I also had one for sushi! What kind of betsubara do you have?

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