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Too Tall for Tokyo

There’s an interesting article on MSNBC about a 5’10” woman’s experience living in Tokyo. While she’s not fat, she got to experience what it’s like to be the wrong size for the world you’re living in. She was evidently a giant descended from a beanpole over in Japan.

Note to self: do not visit Japan. Or if I do visit Japan, be prepared for instant freak status. Not that I have the cash for a trans-Pacific flight anyway. I’m only an inch shorter than this woman and weigh probably around twice as much, so God only knows how I’d be treated. What’s Japanese for “big lumbering fat girl?” I suppose if anyone pissed me off I could just sit on them. That’ll show them! Unless I run into a Sumo wrestler.

Another interesting fact from the article: “In Japanese, the word for different, chigau, is also the word for wrong.” Wow, how’s that for a mind trip? It makes me wonder how much a person’s language can shape their beliefs simply by connecting two different concepts via the same word. How different would we feel if the concepts of “fat” and “good” used the same word?

I always get a little bit of a kick out of articles like this where someone has to reevaluate their place in society and realizes how much who they are and how they feel about themselves is determined simply by how other people treat them. It’s something you only notice when you’re shoved out of your normal environment or change something about yourself. My older brother shaved his head once after a bad haircut and suddenly the grocery store clerk wouldn’t even make eye contact with him.

I know you shouldn’t let other people’s attitudes towards you get you down, but the truth is other people do affect you no matter how much you try not to let them. I think even people who say other people’s opinions of them don’t matter can still be hurt by cruel comments. The difference is they just don’t let it control how they act.

Full article copied and pasted after the jump.

At 5 Feet 10 Inches, I Was Too Tall for Tokyo

I took up too much space in a city designed to fit as much as possible into every conceivable inch.

By Cathie Gandel


Dec. 12, 2005 issue – I tiptoed into the small inner sanctum of the women’s ofuro (communal bath) at the small ryokan (inn) in the Japan Alps. Following custom, I had left my clothes in the outer dressing room, bringing only a small towel with me. The steam rising from the square wooden tub obscured the small window, hiding the tiny garden outside.

Unfortunately, the steam did not hide me, a tall, fair-haired, light-skinned foreign woman. As I sat on the little plastic stool and turned on the wall tap to start the prewash cycle, I became aware of sidelong looks, gasps, muted giggles and a sudden exodus of the Japanese women and children. I must have resembled a gorilla in the mist, or the repulsive creature that was Sigourney Weaver’s nemesis in another of her movies. After all, that’s what I was to these women: an alien, a gaijin.

Japan’s homogeneity has been well documented. The saying “The nail that stands out gets hammered down” describes not only the Japanese loyalty to the group, but also the penalty for not blending in. Because I was a foreign woman, I stood out; the fact that I am 5 feet 10 made it worse. A group photo from my sayonara party says it all: a straight line of my Japanese women friends and me—the unhammered nail standing out from all the rest.

Although I was never really comfortable with being tall there, I had to learn to deal with it. After all, Tokyo is a large city with a large population squeezed into a very small place. It’s not surprising that Japan excels at making mini cars, coffeepots, washer-dryers and food processors. But I am definitely not mini, and I simply took up too much space in Japan.

Yes, I was a gaijin giant, and my height provided more than one awkward moment. I hit my head on the overhanging subway straps. I often had to stoop to enter doorways or look into mirrors positioned for shorter people. Sitting at the low tables in coffee shops, I was unable to cross my legs without knocking over the water glasses (small) and the coffee cups (demi). More than once I slipped slowly into the small, deep ofuro only to create a large tidal wave that flooded the white tile floor, overturning the wooden stools, green soap dishes and pink buckets in a scene reminiscent of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

Japan is not a comfortable place for someone who stands out, but I understand the origin of group consensus. It is an agricultural country with not much arable land. Even today, one family’s acreage is not contiguous. Each parcel is separated by other farms in a checkerboard pattern. So when it is time to plant or harvest the rice, everyone has to work together. The farmers don’t have the luxury of individuality, and that concept permeates Japanese life.

When we left New York, I was a working mom dressed in power suits, having business lunches, serving on the board of directors of my kids’ school. When we arrived in Japan, everything I was, or thought I was, crumpled before one undeniable defining characteristic: I was different.

I learned some of the frustrations that accompany being different. For example, I studied the language for the five years I lived in Tokyo and mastered “survival Japanese”—meaning I could shop, travel, make a reservation and order in a restaurant. My Japanese was good enough for me to understand when men would mutter to each other, “Se ga takai, ne!” or, “She’s really tall!” During our stay, I listened to lots of fractured English, sometimes from strangers who came up to me on the subway wanting to practice. On the other hand, many times I spoke in what I knew to be passable Japanese to a clerk or conductor, only to be rewarded with a vacant stare and a long, drawn-out “Huhhhh?” The person to whom I was speaking couldn’t believe that Japanese words were coming from a foreign face.

In Japanese, the word for different, chigau, is also the word for wrong. I felt all wrong in Japan, but I did my best to fit in. I learned the art of gift-giving and never arrived anywhere empty-handed. I learned not to eat on the street, not even ice cream, because “only beggars need to eat while walking.” I learned to look for beauty in details, not broad vistas: three or four ripe, orange persimmons against a gray stone wall. I learned to listen even when I could not understand.

It wasn’t until my husband’s assignment ended and we were transferred to Los Angeles that I realized how physically and emotionally constraining Tokyo had been for me. While being tall and foreign and a woman are not serious handicaps, my experience in Japan gave me the chance to walk the proverbial mile in another’s shoes. I know what it’s like to be stared at in the subway or laughed at in a sushi bar or ignored because my syntax isn’t perfect. Now that I do, I am much more ready to accept others who may be different—but not necessarily wrong.

GANDEL lives in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2005 MSNBC.com

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Jenniy • December 9, 2005 at 10:52 am

Yikes, at 6’1″ I’m even taller than her! I’ve always loved my height, even all the comments it comes with because they’ve never been negative – it seems everyone wants to be taller. But it definitely sounds like she didn’t get the nice comments in Tokyo.


Elizabeth • December 9, 2005 at 5:50 pm

I LOVED her article. We moved to Hawaii at the end of September this year to discover just how different or “wrong” we were. We were on Oahu in an area where unless you were a tourist or part of the military, it just wasn’t okay to be white. Several of the locals (whether Hawaiian, Asian, whatever) treated us very distantly and we even learned what it felt like to be segregated (sat in the back of the restaurant away from others) a few times. And, we were chased down and screamed at to go back to the mainland because our color wasn’t welcome. While not everyone in Hawaii is that way, enough were to make us feel wrong… different… totally unaccepted. After 4 weeks of living there, we bought our tickets back to Vegas… a home where everybody’s different and nobody’s wrong.


Eddy • January 11, 2006 at 2:59 pm

Not everything is small in Japan, and not everything the Japanese build is small. Take the case of the Yamato, the biggest battleship that put to sea ever. But then you might say, that was over the seas, not land!


Rebecca • January 7, 2009 at 9:05 pm

I’m the shortest person in my family at 5’8″. My husband is the same height, and we were in Tokyo for a while, One of his favorite stories is that it is the only place he could be in an elevator and see over everybody’s head!

I always figured the stares were simply because I was gaijin (and outside of tourist areas), but maybe it was also height! I just knew I was glad I had learned not to stare.

Don’t know if anyone will see this comment so long after the post, but I enjoyed the story!


Nathalie • March 20, 2010 at 10:01 am

I’m sorry about the fact that I’m commenting…oh.. four and a half years after the post was published, but I really wanted to note something.

Yes, the Japanese use the word “chigau” in situations where something is incorrect. However, to say “Oh ho! That means that different and wrong are the same thing in Japanese!” doesn’t really follow for me.

In English, you might use the word “simple” instead of “stupid” to soften the effect of the statement. The above logic would lead you to believe that that means, in English, simplicity and stupidity are considered the same. Ergo, Americans dislike simplicity because it’s stupid. Obviously, that’s a head-scratcher.

In the same way, “chigau” in Japanese doesn’t really mean the same thing as “wrong.” It’s simply a euphemism meant to keep the statement from being too abrupt, frank, and/or rude. It’s being polite.

I’m not denying Japan is xenophobic and homogenophillic (is that a word??), but to point at a linguistic phenomenon and proclaim it proof is a bit absurd.

(And as a side note: the theory that states one’s mental parameters and structure are determined by language is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.)


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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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