As alluded to elsewhere, I'm a fairly large person. I stand about 6'6" (which, happily, is close enough to two meters to save me the trouble of working out how to say "one hundred ninety-eight centimeters" in Japanese), and weigh somewhere on the high side of 270lbs. This means that, even in the Land of the Giants that is the United States, I tend to stand out in a crowd, unless I've inadvertently wandered into a meeting of the NFL Player's Association (in which case, I still stand out, only as "That little guy over there...")

The first reaction of most people on hearing I intended to spend time in Japan was thus a barely suppressed giggle. "You? In Japan?" The enduring images of the country in the United States are derived from the occasional tv news puff piece on the subways in Tokyo (featuring shots of white-gloved conductors physically cramming more people into packed subway cars), and a series of bad movies featuring bamboo-and-paper houses. The image of me in either of those situations is, it seems, a cause for much mirth.

It's not all like that- even in Tokyo, the most crowded place I've ever been, there are a few places which aren't crowded. I never was pushed into a subway car by a white-gloved conductor, though that's probably because I took care to avoid the busiest subway lines, and tried not to go anywhere at rush hour. I have, however, set foot in a few bamboo-and-paper structures, and not being above giving the people what they want[1], I'll throw out a few Gratuitous Size Jokes. This is actually three short(ish) anecdotes taken from one weekend.

Story I:

Sometime in early November, I noticed that it had been something like six weeks since I got my hair cut, and it was getting to be fairly shaggy. So, not without trepidation at the thought of attempting to get a decent haircut in a country where I don't know the words for "short, part on the left," I headed for the University barbershop.

This is a small establishment on the first floor of the student center, and a basic haircut runs 1800 Yen, or about US $15 at the time. This is a price which would irritate me in the US [2], but as the going rate in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area was more like 4000 Yen, it seemed like a good deal.

Other than the language barrier, it was pretty much the same as getting a haircut in DC. Actually, you could probably include the language barrier, as well, as all the Hair Cuttery outlets in Rockville, MD seem to be staffed exclusively with 5' Asian women whose command of English is pretty shaky. As there was not likely to be any of the standard barber-shop conversation (fishing and NFL football being unlikely topics to discuss in Japan), I basically just zoned out, as I usually do in such circumstances. I have nothing useful to contribute by way of hairstyling advice ("Shorter than it is. Thank you."), so I spent my time planning my weekend, and thinking about the talk I had to give on Monday.

Something like halfway through the process, I refocused, and looked in the mirror to check how things were going. The woman cutting my hair was behind the barber chair, trimming the top and back. Which she accomplished by using the comb to isolate some tuft of hair, then doing this ridiculous little ballet-dancer tiptoe stand for a second, snipping a little bit off in the second or so before she fell back down below the level of my head. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I slouched a little lower in the chair (which was set to its lowest position already), to be greeted with a huge sigh of relief, a bow, and a grateful smile. I have no idea how long she'd been doing the hop-and-cut thing, but she was too polite to ask me to move lower [3]...

Story II:

Saturday, I headed downtown to do a little sightseeing. One of the sights to be seen in the neighborhood I went to was the Yokoyama Taikan Memorial Gallery. Yokoyama Taikan was an artist in the early part of this century who did some fairly interesting paintings in traditional styles (hanging scrolls, ink and water) of traditional subjects (plants, fish, birds, Mt. Fuji) with the addition of some Western techniques ("he broke with convention through the bold use of shading," whatever that means[4]...). His house, where he did much of his painting, has been preserved as a museum, showing what a traditional type artist's house looks like, and exhibiting a bunch of his paintings.

The museum is very nice, with a couple of minor flaws [5]. The house is nicer still- arranged in the traditional manner around a tiny courtyard, and with a pleasant little garden in the back. It's all tatami mats (meaning I had to take my shoes off to enter), and there are some small displays of painting supplies meant to show how the artist worked[6].

Another fact of the traditional architecture is that all the doorways are very low, requiring some rather extravagant ducking for me to get through. At this point, you should see where this is headed.

One of the small rooms contained a number of fairly impressive pictures of fish, and a few other items. I spent a few minutes admiring the fish pictures, and was glancing over some less interesting items when a well-dressed middle-aged Japanese couple entered the room. As the rooms are sufficiently small that three is really a crowd, I decided I should move along, and leave them to view this room by themselves.

So, I headed towards the door. Ducking my head by what I thought was an appropriate amount, I glanced back over my shoulder for one more look at the fish pictures (which I really did like).

And my head hit the doorframe with a BANG that rocked the whole house. I missed clearing the door by a good six inches, and I swear, I thought the whole bamboo-and-paper thing was going to come crashing down.

To their credit, the couple who had just entered handled this with consummate grace, making concerned noises in my general direction, and politely ignoring my muttered "Oh, son of a bitch!" Assuring them that I was, in fact, all right, and injured more in pride than in body, I slunk (insofar as I can ever be said to "slink") out into the hall, and to the next room over.

I did hear them laughing about it, after I left, though. And, in retrospect, it was pretty funny...

Story III:

Less slapstick and more a conceptual thing, this time.

Saturday night marked the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Institute for Laser Science within the University of Electro-Communications here in Chofu. As it was chartered for only ten years, this also marked the last of the original money, meaning that the ILS had to be formally dissolved, and replaced by another Institute with a similar name (or maybe the exact same name- I wasn't clear on that), which will continue doing exactly the same thing they've been doing for the past decade. No, this didn't make any sense to me, either, but it's academia, and foreign academia to boot. It doesn't have to make sense.

Anyway, to mark the occasion, a banquet was held in the University restaurant (where I frequently ate lunch). In a typically strange move, the "banquet" was a stand-up quasi-buffet style thing, where large trays of sushi and various other foods were set out on tables, possibly to treat the assembled faculty to the sorry spectacle of a selection of foreign students and post-docs trying to pick up large hunks of raw tuna with oversized chopsticks. In principle, I suppose the idea was for people to serve themselves from the tables, then wander around the room and mingle with the crowd.

In practice, the result was, predictably, that all the students clustered around the high-quality chow, and more or less ate straight off the serving trays. Beer had also thoughtfully been provided, in the form of numerous bottles of Sapporo Black Label, the majority of which quickly found themselves drawn into the student section (the faculty leaning more towards heavily watered Japanese whiskey).

As this was, in part, a formal occasion, a great many speeches were made. Interminable speeches, mostly in Japanese, which didn't matter much, as every speaker said essentially the same things, anyway[7]. I concentrated on battling the other students for as much of the good food[8] and free beer as I could grab.

Partway through the "interminable speeches" part of the evening, when the food had run out, and student expeditionary forces were being launched into faculty territory to obtain more beer, things hit one of those general lulls that occur during such affairs, and I took a look around the room. By this time, it was pitch dark outside, and the room was, as all Japanese public spaces are after sundown, brilliantly lit. This meant that the huge windows which line the walls of the room (kept clean by an army of short women in uniforms) were, effectively, big mirrors.

Now, one of the odd psychological things about being tall, which nobody seems to grasp, is that I tend not to think of myself as being all that much larger than everybody else. I mean, I'm aware, when I choose to think about it, that I generally need to look down to have a conversation, but after a while, I sort of get acclimated to the average height of everyone else, and don't think about how I fit into that.[9]

The only thing which shatters this is, of course, looking at group photos, or, as in this case, catching a glimpse of a mirror. In which case, I realize just how tiny everybody around me is.

I have a tough time coming up with words to describe how badly I stuck out in this crowd. Even the students I had provisionally begun to think of as "tall" (for Japanese students) are eight inches shorter than I am. The "average" height is better than a foot shorter than me.

And there's a serious bulk issue, too- of the maybe fifty people in the room, there were no two together who would have as much mass as I do. Looking in the mirror, they all looked like stick-figure people surrounding me [10]- I looked like Lawrence Taylor at an elementary school. (The closest thing I have to a picture deomstrating this is this group shot (105KB), showing me and my parents with the Takahashis, who were about average size for Japan).

This, of course, explains the hopping hairstylist, and the frightening rattling of the Yokoyama Taikan house when I walked into the doorframe. And also the small children gaping at me on the subway [11], and the terrified look most maitre d's would get when I walked into their restaurants, and the way the Amazing Kleenex Ladies would leave me alone[12], and half a dozen other things.

The fact that these needed explaining, of course, indicates that I'd been there too long...


[1] Well, OK, a certain significant segment of my probable audience is waiting to hear about the Ancient Sex Secrets of the Mysterious East. Keep waiting. [back]

[2] Since moving to the DC area, I've become resigned to paying $11 for a haircut, but I still think that the "right" price is more like the $5-7 charged by the Hollywood Barber Shop in Johnson City, NY, or St. Pierre's Barber Shop in Williamstown, MA. [back]

[3] Or smack me in the head and say "Hey! Move down!" which is the American way of handling this issue... Actually, this excess of politesse is chronic in Japan. I frequently caught myself crowding people on trains without even knowing it, because they weren't going to cause trouble by telling me to move back. Somehow, this makes the awkwardness even worse... [back]

[4] A minor and recurring peeve when reading art books, or guide books talking about art, is the overuse of adjectives which are too strong for the subject. "Broke with convention through bold use of shading"- oooh, yeah, that's bold. He was really risking having his head put on a pike over the castle gate, wasn't he? [back]

[5] For those who care: The big flaw is that nothing is labeled in English. And, while they helpfully provide a little pamphlet with information about what paintings are exhibited, there's nothing to match up a given painting to its description (this, despite the fact that all the display cases have numbers on them). Meaning that, without some detailed knowledge of East Asian biology, there's no way to tell which plants and fish match with which plant and fish titles (Mt. Fuji, I could identify...). [back]

[6] "While kneeling on the floor" is as useful a description as I could derive from this. [back]

[7] "It has been a very great pleasure to work at the Institute for Laser Science, these past ten years. Thank you, Dr. Takeda, for coming up with the idea to found the Institute for Laser Science. I look forward to working at the new Institute for Laser Science in the next ten years." [back]

[8] I'd identify it more accurately, but I was following the First Rule of Ethnic Food, namely, "Don't ask what it is." I do know that one of the dishes was some sort of stir-fried squid, because one of the students told me before I could stop him... (It was pretty tasty, though) [back]

[9] This is not such a big deal among my friends from college (average height something like 6'1"), but crops up in physics circles all the time... [back]

[10] Or else I looked like a snowman surrounded by normal-size children. Guess which image I'm sticking with... [back]

[11] One of whom got smacked in the head for pointing me out to his parents. They're big on politeness in Japan, but I felt bad for the kid... [back]

[12] For reasons beyond my immediate comprehension, but probably related to the bathroom facilities in Tokyo, there are always well-dressed women handing out packets of Kleenex at the exits of major subway stations. [back]

Last modified: 11 December, 2001