Saturday, August 20, 2005


Big in Japan

Once when my friend Isao came to visit me from Japan, we went shopping at Banana Republic which was having a nice sale, and he said to me with concern, "Marie. You’re looking at the small clothes." And I said, "I'm a small in America."

The thing is I am a size small here -- most of the time -- but in Japan I am very definitely not small. This is particularly true in the countryside, where people will ask me with total wonder and without a hint of malice, "Exactly how many centimeters tall are you?" I never have an answer for this, as I only know my height in feet. (Yes, I know. I should learn the metric system).

For his part, Isao is actually an extra-large in Japan, where he is teased light-heartedly for his height and girth. In this country, he is merely a large and doesn't look out of place.

In Japan I often find myself slouching, trying to fit in, convinced that I have gained an enormous amount of weight. This isn't helped by the fact that young women these days are painfully thin in Japan; the eating disorders and obsession with the skeletal frame have, after decades of tormenting the States, finally reached the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I think this is one indication that Japan has really come of age as a modern country. The calorie count – which the Japanese seem to be obsessed with these days – of most meals has got to be lower than it is here in the States, and I invariably come back to New York thinner than when I left. I get off the plane, look around, see that I am again in the land where I am small and I feel relieved.

Size is always a strange part of traveling to a foreign country, and we often take it for granted. The Japanese have a tradition in their old tea-houses of deliberately making the entrance small; the idea was that when engaged in the tea ceremony, all individuals, whether shogun or not, were reduced to a smaller size. It makes us humble. I like this intentional use of size.

(Here I am, pretending to come out of a door to a tea-house).

(And here I am slouching next to a maiko-san in Kyoto. For those who don't know, yes, a maiko bears some relationship to what we call a "geisha" in the West. But a maiko is more appropriately considered an apprentice geiko, the Kyoto term for "geisha," a term which carries with it many unfortunate and inappropriate connotations).

But then there is the scene in "Lost in Translation" where Bill Murray wrestles with the tiny shower-head and shaver, and anyone who has been to Japan and suffered through endless culture shock can relate to that scene. People traveling to Japan for the first time know from movie watching that they should expect to find its scale a mystery.

(This is my cousin Glen, who is 6 foot 4, standing in front of a door in Aoyama in Tokyo. Obviously, he is very tall and the door is very small. But it still made for a good picture.)

This past summer I took my boyfriend to Japan. He is 6 foot 2, from Scotland and quite clearly not Japanese. As we passed through the halls of Nijo palace in Kyoto, I heard a woman murmur behind us, "Look! That gaijin correctly went through the doorway!" She was implying that she was impressed he had managed not to hit his head. When we talked about this later, he told me that he had in fact hit his head plenty of other times; he just hadn't adjusted to the scale of Japanese living.

(This is Gordon and the door to our hotel room. Fortunately the ceiling was higher than the door might lead you to believe.)

And yet, Japan is also the land of the largest free-standing wooden torii gate (Meiji shrine, Tokyo) and the largest wooden sculpture (the Buddha at Todaiji in Nara). These things are impressive to look at as a foreigner, and as a Japanese. So, clearly, it can't be said that the Japanese like to make things small as a rule.

In fact, when I visited the Sony Center in Tokyo, an American friend commented that the new Sony music players were frustrating to use because of the tiny buttons, and that the designers must not have thought through their functionality. My cousin, Aya, became defensive and said that in Japan, people were simply less wasteful of space; apparently we waste button space here in America!

And yet this isn't true, either, if I think about the amount of paper and plastic that goes into wrapping even the simplest item bought in a store.

As a kid I always liked Alice in Wonderland; I loved the idea of drinking something and becoming larger or smaller. This strikes me as a particularly true expression of what happens when we travel to different countries and culture, which have an unpredictable sense of scale. It probably partly explains why I like stories that toy with scale; it gets at how travelers perceive the world around them. Even here in the States my sense of perception is toyed with, when I drive around in the southwest, where towns are very, very far apart and you must pay attention to how far it is to the next gas-station. And then there is life here in New York, where our small one-bedroom apartment is considered quite spacious by Manhattan standards.

I am thinking of trying to get at this whole phenomenon in a story one day. I'll probably approach it from the whole Alice in Wonderland sense of aesthetics; you can only go so far demonstrating culture shock by putting Bill Murray in claustrophobic spaces. That's funny and cute, but I think there are even more extreme examples of culture shock and space that have yet to be explored in fiction.

I am reminded, finally, of the time we took my Japanese grandfather on a camping trip. We had been driving all day across the Central Valley in California and he said to me, "Well! That must be the Rocky Mountains." And we had to explain that, no, these were just the Sierra Nevadas. His eyes widened and he perceived just how enormous California, and consequently the United States really was. Ditto for my friends who are die-hard travelers who insist that the best way to see a city is to walk it. And yet, I would never advise anyone to walk all of Tokyo.

Wow... I've nvr thought of the difference in sizes before. It was generally accepted that foreigners/westerners are bigger sized.

I'm a very short girl, even by Asian standards, very small... I guess that I'll have a major problem if I decide to go to the states huh?

Thanks for this post... It's really interesting~
I'm a tallish guy and I must say I was surprised how tall I felt in Japan and impressed by their marvelous economy. You wanted be as succinct as a morsel in a bento. Instead you were a great big sloppy happy meal, unnecessarily big everywhere.

I guess it's what you expect but it's a lot more complicated than just small/big!

Size has never crossed my mind before while traveling in Asia. When traveling in Africa, I fit right in although I am lighter skinned than most.

While I was in Beijing, most of the time I was obsessing about what people thought of my dreadlocks. I can be a head turner.

:) Cool that you grew up speaking German. Do you still speak it? I personally wish that I had grown up speaking something other than English==>I would like to add Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and French to my repetoire. I have always wanted to be multilingual. Alas, now that I am back in grad school, I am too lazy to sign up for language classes. :p
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