Big in Japan

I don’t mean to scare people, but I do.

When I stand on a street corner, waiting for the light to change, they look up at me with shock. They gasp audibly in that Japanese way, inhaling and singing, “Oh!” before laughing awkwardly at my awkward size.

I don’t need them reminding me. I already feel too big for everything, everyday. Either I squeeze my shoulders inwards and fill the 4-person elevator all by myself, or I am kneeling in the bathtub, bowing under the shower head, or else I am turning around in miniature aisles and knocking bottles to the floor, collapsing shelves and stepping on the bare heels of middle-aged shoppers.

I bow out of respect but more importantly, I bow to avoid the pain. I have a permanent bump on my forehead, the result of constant run-ins with exit signs, doorways, and light fixtures. Once, I almost knocked myself out when I kissed a cedar beam at a temple in Kyoto. It was painful and for two seconds, I hated this place for making everything so small. Meditation helped the throbbing headache pass, and in a Zen-like way, I accepted. Accepted the fact that I am basically too large.

 

Me & Mei, feeling like a giant in Japan. (AE, NGS)

 

I have come to accept that I am a giant in Japan. In a country of precise proportions, my 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm) height makes me an outlier. The average male height in Japan is 5 feet 7 inches (171 cm) and although you see a wide variance of Japanese people (like anywhere else in the world), Japan’s material culture is standardized for the average.

I realized this one night as I lay on the floor, trying to fall asleep, my arms pulled in to my sides and my head shifting on my beanbag pillow. I could feel the cloth ridges where the edges of two tatami mats meet.

Woven from rice straw and used to cushion the floor of any traditional Japanese room, tatami mats are Japan’s standard unit: 3 feet by 6 feet. Japanese rooms, houses and apartments are all measured by the number of tatami mats it takes to cover the floors. For example, a traditional Japanese tea house is only 2 tatami mats big. In the old country houses had rooms that were 6 tatami and 10 tatami mats big and some of the palaces in Kyoto had floor plans that exceeded 100 tatami mats.

Already, I have noticed how compartmentalized everything is in Japan. Every object (and person) has a place. There is always a container to put something in; always a separate dish for one specific item. Just look at a bento box where lunch comes pre-dissected and perfect for any picky toddler–no single food item touches any other food item.

Japan’s obsession with compartmentalization fascinates me: how theirs is an entire universe that has been measured, allocated, situated and stowed away so neatly. After weeks considering chopstick envelopes, fusuma doors and the perfect packaged gift boxes sold in every shop in every train station from here to Hokkaido, I think it’s safe to say that whereas my country likes to think outside the box, Japan wants desperately to fit in the box.

But I do not fit in the box. I am larger than Japan’s standard unit; I am larger than a tatami mat. Also, my feet are also obnoxiously too big–my size 13 shoes have provided plenty of laughs for anyone who has seen them here.

I am the guy in the borrowed slippers, feet jammed in like Cinderella’s stepsisters, tip-toeing across the floor, pretending nobody notices how much I don’t fit.

It is natural when we travel — to try and fit in; to try and belong. Even if it means trying to make ourselves smaller. But not belonging is one of the benefits of travel. By not belonging, we see ourselves differently–like staring in a funhouse mirror and realizing actually that our nose is huge, or that our ears stick out.

I came to Japan and Japan told me that I am a freakish giant. And together, we laughed.

Comments

  1. Natalie T.
    Toronto
    September 20, 2011, 10:17 pm

    You may be a “freakish giant” but you are a friendly giant and that’s why you fit in!

  2. Monica
    Missouri, USA
    September 20, 2011, 10:47 pm

    I’m glad you have kept your sense of humor. The Japanese are beautiful people and I’m sure they find you delightful. I know we do! (You are the perfect size for you. But you know that.) :)
    I am enjoying your adventures, Andrew. Traveling mercies and God bless.

  3. Kymri
    at sea
    September 21, 2011, 3:48 am

    Ha! Adorable Giant you are :) I also titled a blog feature “Big in Japan” a few years back….like minds….

  4. Michael
    Arlington, VA
    September 21, 2011, 6:26 am

    I’m a big guy, wide and tall and sometimes have trouble with my size in Japan. Even last week, at the Tea House at Washington’s Japanese Embassy, I managed to slam my head into a wooden beam. I remember there’s a walkway at Tokyo Station that so short my head scrapes the ceiling as I traverse the path.

  5. Valerie Hamer
    South Korea
    September 21, 2011, 8:28 am

    Oh I feel for those who hit their heads on doorways. I always found the sinks to be too low. (It’s the same here in Korea.)

    At 5ft 8″ (174cms?) I’m usually taller than older people. In Tokyo I used to sometimes wear heels and then feel like the world had shrunk!

  6. Tyler
    Fairfax, VA
    September 21, 2011, 2:37 pm

    Ohio Gozaimasu Evans-san!

    I am green with envy reading about your travels,
    but for you I am happy!
    Japan is such an awe-inspiring place and I hope to visit one day, maybe bike around the island!

    Cheers from the West,

    Ty

  7. CHAMADE
    Far East
    September 21, 2011, 9:25 pm

    OK, get used to not being able to get used to it.

    I’ve lived in Japan for 47 years and I can tell you things are highly unlikely to get better scale-wise. Traditional sizes have dictated many things, from expectations to prefabricated construction parts.

    I have noticed, though, that I tend to hit my head on door frames when I am in a joyful, carefree mood when, for example, something good has just happened, and less frequently when I am deeply pre-occupied.

    Enjoy your visit, Gulliver.

  8. es
    Brownsville Texas
    September 24, 2011, 8:08 am

    Being tall is a good thing. Its been said that tall men where descents of angels. In my culture. Seems like ur kind enough great smile

  9. Rebecca
    U.S.
    October 4, 2011, 2:08 pm

    I can totally relate! I was stationed in Japan for three (very cherished) years. As a 6′ tall woman – I was a walking tourist attraction whenever I would wander to places away from the base!

  10. January
    FLDUYHIwZbv
    October 9, 2011, 2:08 am

    Never would have thunk I would find this so inidsnpesbale.

  11. Cynthia
    Toledo, Ohio; USA
    October 10, 2011, 12:24 pm

    Hey former NW Ohioan :) Have you noticed if there is a difference in the reaction based on the gender of the tall individual? I was previously warned never to travel alone there for the sole reason that I am 6’1″ tall… Just curious :)

  12. Chris
    Germany
    March 10, 2013, 11:48 am

    I am 6 ft 4 too :) ( in shoes a tad more). often wear converse.
    Even in my country where the average size for males
    is 5 ft 11. People look up and ask you how tall you are, at least 2 times in a month. I like that.
    you look really tall on that picture. You could be easily
    6 ft 6 here.

    best wishes
    chris