The prevalence of fatty liver in children is unknown and its relationship to obesity is poorly defined. The present study of 810 northern Japanese children (4-12 years old) determined the prevalence of fatty liver in the pediatric population and its relationship to obesity. Diagnosis of fatty liver was based on established real-time ultrasonographic criteria. The overall prevalence of fatty liver was 2.6% and was higher for boys (3.4%) than for girls (1.8%), although not statistically significant (P = 0.15). Fatty liver was found in children as young as 6 years of age. There was no significant association between the prevalence of fatty liver and height (physical growth). There was a strong positive correlation between fatty liver prevalence and established obesity indices: Rohrer's Index--chi 2 linear trend = 59.2, P < 0.0001; body mass index--chi 2 linear trend = 91.6, P < 0.0001; and age-gender-adjusted Japanese standard index of weight for height--chi 2 linear trend = 93.2, P < 0.0001. However, direct measurement of abdominal subcutaneous fat thickness by ultrasonography was the best predictor of fatty liver: chi 2 linear trend = 159, P < 0.0001. These results indicate that fatty liver may develop very early in life, and there is a direct relationship between degree of obesity and fatty liver in children.