I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of tearfully explaining to a salesgirl that, no, the largest size in her ultra-trendy boutique won’t fit your fat ass no matter how many times she nods encouragingly and shoves clothes at you, but that’s a glimpse of what my life was like working and existing as a 185-pound woman in Japan.
With a 5’5” frame, I had gotten by OK in the States, or at least I hadn’t experienced any overt negativity beyond concerned murmurs from well-meaning relatives. Even when a friend found me a job working at a kindergarten in Tokyo, the beauty-obsessed metropolis where thin is always in, I assumed I would be safe — my apartment was in a tiny town within Tokyo proper, close enough to the major cities so that I would never get bored but far enough so that I figured I could just run to the neighborhood Family Mart in my sweatpants without feeling like an affront to society.
Oh, sweet naiveté.
The first friend I made in Japan outside of my coworkers was actually a young woman from Yokohama who was dating an American stationed at the Navy base. She and I were around the same size, and she quickly clued me in as to some of the obstacles I could expect.
“Japanese guys don’t like fat chicks. And if you’re going to be fat, you at least have to dress well. And don’t eat a lot of food in public.”
Ah, yes, the Rules for Fat Girls. Back home I had mostly ignored them, comfortable enough with my friends and family who knew damn well that I couldn’t put an outfit together or sit picking at a side salad while everyone else ate steak.
But the Rules are more strictly enforced in Tokyo, especially in terms of style. If you’ve watched too many old Gwen Stefani videos or any anime, ever, you might think that Japanese fashion is just a hodgepodge of whatever the hell you want, but don’t be fooled! Most people don’t dress like they do in the wilder pockets of Harajuku, and even those that do follow outlandish trends understand that there are specific parameters to mind.
Conforming to the Rules meant avoiding anything that would draw attention to myself, but I couldn’t help buying the occasional pink coat with devil horns attached to the hood or blue sweater encrusted with a rhinestone unicorn. As a larger lady, H&M and Seiyu (Japan’s spotless, gleaming version of Walmart) were pretty safe, or sometimes I would do it the hard way and drift from shop to shop at Shibuya 109 or Isetan until I found a fashionably oversized top that would swamp a native but fit me like a regular shirt.
I couldn’t always ignore my weight the way I’d done back home. Every other advertisement was for some weird slimming product or another, modeled by size-zero Japanese women bemoaning invisible stomach bulges to their anguished husbands. Friends and colleagues would drop constant hints, as if I were astoundingly unaware of my own physical form: suggestions to eat this, not that, or pitying glances when I got painfully and hilariously stuck in a stadium seat. A guy I really liked even told me that I was “too big to be pretty,” right before he asked me to sleep with him. Uh...no thanks, buddy.
Fortunately, the worst I ever experienced in terms of outright harassment was a guy who once followed me and made crow noises, flapping his arms and insisting in patchwork English that I eat trash. I’m not even sure if that was motivated by my weight or my race or both, or if he was just a lunatic. Either way, he chased me for two blocks until I ducked into an empty koban, which is a Japanese police box — my town was so small that ours was frequently occupied by a chair and a phone, which I could only assume would connect to a bored cop on a bicycle somewhere.
Outside of the daily puzzle to dress and maneuver my seat-busting self around town, I struggled to understand the concept of casually pervasive racism in Japan. My coworkers were mostly fellow expats, but they had been in Tokyo long enough that it didn’t shock them anymore when comedians appeared on TV wearing blackface. Surely it’s possible to imitate Michael Jackson with just a shiny glove and a halfway decent moonwalk?
One of my coworkers was a young black man who had been stopped by cops on the same corner so many times that he suggested they should just post up his picture at the police station with a caption reading THIS ONE IS SAFE.
And if you don’t remember World War II or the years preceding it, Japan has a long and unfortunately proud history of being an imperial dick. The collective conscious today has mostly accepted the idea that other countries are OK too, but certain nationalist sentiments persist in fringe doses; hate groups march through predominantly Korean neighborhoods and protest for all the Japan-born Koreans to go home, and anyone speaking Japanese with a Chinese or Korean accent may be subject to prejudicial treatment.
Since I’m only a quarter Japanese, I went about my business in Tokyo for all intents and purposes as a white person. Sometimes people could tell I was mixed, but a casual glance in the streets revealed nothing other than a typical fat American. The reaction to my blended heritage was often an expression of dismay that I wasn’t “more Japanese.” I’m sorry? I can’t help that my mom found the whitest whitey to ever white his way out of Minnesota. (No offense, Dad.) Some people also weren’t too pleased to learn that my grandpa had been an American serviceman, but they were pleasantly surprised to hear that he’d actually come back for my grandma, seven years after knocking her up in Sapporo.
Being foreign was something that strangers were willing to accept, if grudgingly, but to be female and fat seemed to present a proper conundrum. A neighborhood pharmacist once scolded me for wasting my youth, as this was apparently the time when men were supposed to be most attracted to me. “It’s harder when you’re older,” he warned, shaking a tube of antifungal cream in my face (I had athlete’s foot, which is mizumushi in Japanese, you’re welcome). When a similarly sized friend came to visit me from the States, a shop owner in Asakusa brusquely informed her as soon as she walked in the door that no kimono in his shop would fit her. She didn’t even have time to tell him that she was shopping for a relative who could have easily fit his overpriced clothes.
I got used to comments from children, who were too small and precious to hold accountable but often had the most cutting remarks. The great thing about kids, though, is that they’re willing to admit fault or ignorance, which I’m often hard-pressed to find among adults.
When one of my students told me that I didn’t look like a princess because of how round my face was, I asked her if that meant I could never be a princess at all. She thought for a while, and then ran to get her Shrek coloring book.
“Fiona is a princess,” she said triumphantly, holding a picture of the ogre up to my face. “So you can be too!”
When people ask me what it was like living in Tokyo, especially if they’re considering going there for more than a vacation, I’m somewhat torn between how much I loved it and how difficult it was for me to navigate such a homogenous society while very clearly being an outsider. In large part, the people I met were unfailingly kind, and I adored my boss even though she frequently fretted about my fat chances for getting fatly married.
And Japan is gradually moving toward a deviation from worshipping the waif, with some brands that have found success overseas offering a broader range of sizes, like Uniqlo and Bape. la farfa, Japan’s first plus-size magazine, is also a huge (ha) step in the right direction. Mindsets evolve slower than style, but I think a significant portion of the population is tired of slimming toe rings and diet stockings.
So if you’re willing to adapt rather than assimilate, Japan has much more to offer than Naruto and vending machines full of underwear (which I never found, and not for lack of searching). Just as Los Angeles doesn’t represent the entire U.S., Tokyo isn’t the full picture of Japan. Even though there were times when I literally didn’t fit in, I think the world is large enough, if you’re determined enough.
And even though I got stuck in the seat, at least I saw the show.