What It's Like Having Big Breasts While Living In Japan

A story of learning and turtleneck sweaters.
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Scarlett Cayford
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A story of learning and turtleneck sweaters.

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Having breasts isn't a surprise. They’re right there, bobbing along beneath your chin, catching the food you drop and proudly escorting you into the world day after day. You buy bras for them, take them to bars, pluck the dark hairs that grow around the nipples and wonder about the mysteries of the universe that led to dark hair growing around your nipples. 

But the first time I was really surprised by my own, fairly average, run-of-the-mill breasts was when I moved to Japan at the age of 22.

My own pair of breasts are both proportional to my frame and unremarkable, and as such I’ve never made much of a mission of either covering them up, or setting them free. As a teenager in New Zealand, tank tops are pretty much the summer outfit of choice. Even working in hospitality serving sandwiches and coffee, a low-ish neckline wasn’t anything problematic (as long as your armpits are covered. You know what people don’t like with their lattes and brownies? Armpits). 

But I moved to Japan in summer, and on my third day in the country, sitting in a subway carriage wearing a dress that scooped below my neck, but showed not even a shadow of cleavage, I noticed a man standing too close to me in the uncrowded carriage, holding on to the bar above his head with one hand, positioned almost between my knees. And then I noticed that he was using his cellphone to take a photo of my breasts. And then those breasts, the same ones I’d sported unproblematically for nearly 10 years, suddenly became an issue.

Even though I’ve since moved to London, a city where I could have three arms and still only be noticed if I failed to stand up for a pregnant woman on the tube, they’re a problem to this day.

The man on the tube was a pervert, and an arse, and he does not represent the Japanese people that I came to respect and love over the course of two years living there, but he was not the last to take an unsolicited photo of the twins, nor was he alone in his chest fixation. 

The simple fact of the matter is that Japanese women are genetically small, and that same smallness is reflected in their cup sizes. It’s reflected in my total inability to buy a bra that fit while I lived there, in the XXL blouses that gaped obscenely on me and in their fascination with large breasts, both in anime and in real life. 

That fascination with breasts forced me to adapt. My concept of what is revealing and what is not had to shift dramatically. And it’s not like I was ever trying to push boundaries -– I was hired to work in a high school and so push-up bras and strapless tops weren’t exactly my everyday wear.

But despite being warned about this very thing, my wardrobe, both for school and for day-to-day life, had to be completely rethought. The tops of the shoulders? The collarbone? All taboo. Despite the fact that temperatures in Japan regularly sky-rocketed, I was tucked away and buttoned up to the chin every single day of my two-year working life, sweating rivers between the two dangerous concealed weapons I bore on my ribcage. Do Japanese schools not have air-conditioning, I hear you ask? They do not, answer my sweaty, sweaty nipples. 

Despite my care not to offend or arouse, I did. 

I was, after all, routinely pacing around energetically in front of a classroom full of 15-year-old boys. One of the first new words I learnt in Japan was “oppai,” a colloquial term for large breasts, simply because it was said around me so often that I plugged it into my translator app just to find out what it meant. I was expecting a word for red-haired, or maybe for foreigner.

And the more Japanese I learned, the less naïve I got. Girls posed for photos with me on the street, pointing at them. In a club, a man stopped and, in broken English, congratulated me for “growing those.” And I was lucky -- a colleague of mine, who was both much shorter and much bustier than I, had to have a student sent to the principal’s office three times before he stopped trying to touch them.

I do realize that I got off lightly –- that people suffer from much, much worse harassment, but it was every day, from all sides, from school kids to business men to grandmothers. I never got used to it, and it never stopped. I stopped making eye contact with people on public transport. I wore more layers. I stopped being able to laugh at it. 

The kicker of it is, while living there, I would have traded my frontage for the aesthetically amazing legs that the Japanese women took for granted. Not that they hid them away though -– never before or since have I seen such a casual proliferation of miniature shorts, sheer stocking and brutally high heels. The school girls I taught, too young still to be sexualized (by their peers -– by men, and by pop culture, it was another story), wore the most miniature of skirts. The thighs, the calves -– and I would have stared, had they not been everywhere, always, which certainly gave me pause when I realized that that’s exactly why they were staring at me.

So I left Japan, older and more self conscious, with a wardrobe full of shirts with the buttons sewn closed, elaborate light cotton scarves that I could wear in summer, and high-necked everything. Two years later, I’ve now started to feel more comfortable in the styles that were the norm for me before I moved, and my assets have become assets once more.

My D-cups and I are pleased to be back on a continent where they are but two of many. But you don’t quickly forget the stares and the photographs and the unsought comments. I am careful now to always refrain from staring, even if I mean to admire and intend to compliment.