My You’ve Gotten Fat or Isn’t Japan Supposed to be Polite?

For those of you who don’t know, I spent my first three years in Japan living on Kitadaito Island.  Kitadaito is a small island 320km east of the mainland of Okinawa.  While I was there, I experienced the close community of rural Japan, and started writing.  A bit over a year ago, I moved to Kumejima which his far larger.  Since this is my last year with the JET Programme, I decided to visit Kitadaito during their annual Daitogusai Festival.  While I still stayed in contact with many people from Kitadaito, and even saw them occasionally on the mainland, it was the first time I had really seen everyone in over a year.

A year might not seem like a long time to you, but in Japan things can change a lot.  Teachers, doctors, and other civil servants often change jobs every few years.  On Kitadaito, Junior High graduates have to leave the island since there is no high school for them.  So even though it had only been a year, some students and friends were gone, many students had gotten bigger or changed, and there were new people to meet.

Perhaps most surprising was the fact that I had changed too.  When I came to Japan I weighed 80kg (that’s 176lbs for all you non-metric people).  If you’ve read Samurai Awakening, you probably figured out I played a lot of sports while I was there, and with all the running and sports festivals, I kept in decent shape.  Things change though

Back to Daito

So last month, I went back to Kitadaito for 5 days.  Nearly the first thing, every single person said to me was “太った” (futotta).  Now if you plug that into Google Translate, you’ll get a translation of “Fat” with alternatives of “Chubby” and “Plump.”

Why did literally at least 15 people say this to me on my first day back?  Well because when I went I was about 91kg (200lbs).  But aren’t Japanese people supposed to be polite?  Don’t they ignore stuff so that they can live through dealing with stuffed subway cars and close quarters?  Strangely enough, there’s a lot going on in that simple little phrase, and a lot of different meanings.

My You’re Fat

I’m not a kanji (the complicated Chinese symbols used in Japanese writing) expert, but one of the first 100 kanji you’ll learn if you begin studying Japanese is “Big” 大.  It’s relatively simple, and if you take a look at the kanji for fat 太 you can kind of see where they’re going with it.  Big.. Fat.. kind of looks like a guy with a belly button sticking out or something.  But the closeness between these two characters leads to an interesting point about Japanese language.  The same word can often have many different meanings depending on the situation.  Were they really calling me fat? or are electronic translators still not real great at nuance?  I’ll let you decide.  Below are two pictures.  One from when I left Kitadaito, and one a bit over a year later when I returned.  While I definitely did grow in weight, that was also at the end of training for 5 Okinawan Sumo competitions.

July 2011

July 2012


More on Politeness in Japan

Perhaps the more interesting question is not my weight, but instead why so many people commented on a recognized change.  It is true that in Japan most people often equate the distance among strangers that is common in Japan with politeness.  There’s a definite need to ignore some things in close quarters to make society run smoothly.  When I went back, I was talking to people who I considered friends, and many of them I have now known for more than 4 years.  Perhaps most of the people I met are just simply comfortable enough with me to comment.  Some maybe wanted to say something, and jumped on an obvious change as a talking point (this relates to the “You can use chopsticks!?” deal many expats have encountered).

There is also likely a bit of that socializing effect you can sometimes spot in Japan.  The Japanese have their own proverb, “The nail that stands up gets knocked down.”  There are almost subconscious social pressures in Japan to be homogeneous, that is the same.  In reality, Japan is full of diversity, but sometimes people in the same “in-group” will comment on differences, almost as a way of letting someone know their difference is noted.  You can take this as a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.  But I’d want a warning if I was about to be knocked down.  Looking back on Japanese history, you can see that in a village where sword-toting overlords might hack off a head that stood to tall, you might want to warn your friend before they stood out too much.  Those aspects of Japanese Culture are still around, and can often be misunderstood by westerners, especially since so much of it happens subconsciously.

For my part,  I did the whole spectrum from amused, to annoyed, to a little angry, to finally understanding  another aspect of Japanese culture (I’m slow.. It took all 15 on the first day.. and some more on the second, and so on).   In the end, it was simply great to be back, and I suspect there was a mix of reasons behind the phrase.  I choose to take it as “Hey you got buff! Why do you still lose Sumo?”