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Biiiiig baby! — Japanese get taller and skinnier, but not bigger

by Amy Chavez

“How old do you think those kids are?” Asked my father, admiring the cute little American tots standing in line at the ski lift. They were dressed in the puffy ski outfits of the latest fashionable shade of kindergarten pastel, making them look like they were wrapped in cotton candy. Snuggly fit around their middles was a rope with a handle affixed at the back so their instructor could lift them up onto the ski lift, or pick them up from the snow when they fell.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“I’d guess 5,” said my father.

“Oh, I think they’d have to be 6 or 7″ I said, noticing that the kids’ helmets were already up to the instructor’s hips.

We asked the instructor. They were 5.

My God, they’re giants! I thought. I’m so used to being around Japanese children, I never would have imagined 5-year-olds could be so big. Even though Japanese people have grown taller over the years (said to be a result of everything from drinking more milk, eating more meat, and sitting on chairs instead of the floor), they haven’t gotten much bigger or wider. They’re still “skinny as a rail,” as the American saying goes. When I first came to Japan 19 years ago, many foreigners commented that the Japanese were so skinny, they looked unhealthy. But skinny as a rail is normal in Japan. And quite healthy too.

When my Japanese friend Mika married an American, their first baby weighed 8 lbs. (3.6 kg) at birth. “Big baby!” Mika still says, as if she hasn’t gotten over the shock. “You won’t believe it when you see her,” she told me. So when she and her husband and 3-year-old daughter visited Japan, I was prepared to meet a baby elephant. But the child was a normal size for an American child. But Mika was still saying, “Biiiiig baby!” surely aware that her Japanese friends were scrutinizing the size of her child, and possibly holding out handfuls of peanuts.

I can understand how Japanese people feel when their size is compared to that of normal Americans. That’s because I’m not a normal American. At 150 cm tall and 47 kg, I hardly fit the American stereotype. As a child, I was so small that my classmates used to tease me: “Did the doctor have to put you on a slide and look at you under a microscope?” they’d ask. Of course I couldn’t answer this since I couldn’t remember. But I’ve always felt that being small was a good thing. My size was usually an advantage, especially in sports. As long as the sport wasn’t basketball or sumo.

My mother talks about how people would chastise her for letting her children do things on their own. “Those kids are too young to be out on a rowboat by themselves,” a stranger said to her once while she was standing on the shore of the lake watching. When my petite mother explained that her kids were actually two years older than they looked, the people always apologized. I always thought that if, as a family, we just stood very still, striking a certain pose, people would mistake us for superhero figures.

But Mika was understandably self-conscious about her big baby. When you see a pregnant Japanese woman, sometimes you can hardly tell she’s pregnant. And often, they’re further along in their term than you’d think. “I’m due next month,” one woman told me, looking down at the baseball lodged in her abdomen. She looked more like she was going to give birth to a baby panda. Japanese newborns are often extremely tiny, in my opinion, even at full term.

Doctors in Japan tell pregnant women to watch their weight, and caution them not to gain too many kilos during pregnancy. Imagine such advice accompanied by food cravings. Got a craving for whale shark? Too bad!

Doctors in the United States used to tell women to eat as much as they like. After all, with a baby inside, they’re eating for two! Who knows what they tell pregnant women in the U.S. nowadays. Perhaps, “Eat like an elephant.” And even though my mother was told to eat as much as she wanted when she was pregnant, I’m still no bigger than a Labrador retriever.

I have observed, however, that some of my Japanese friends who are parents let their kids eat as much as they want. My friends’ 7- and 8-year-old girls used to eat twice the amount of kaiten zushi and pizza than I could. But once they got older, their portions shrank to the size of their parents’ — smaller than mine. These days the girls are 15 and 16 and skinny as a rail, just like their classmates. Good eating habits seem to kick in at school, where children learn about diet and nutrition. The girls are also already taller than both their parents. Go figure.

“It must be something in the water,” my grandmother used to say after moving to Texas, where she observed the women were so much taller than back East. It could be something in the water in Japan, too, but here I think it would be something in the sea water.

I fully expect Japan to continue to get taller and skinnier over the coming generations. Someday, they’ll be a nation of dental floss. But they’re still healthier and live longer than people in my country, so they must be doing something right. Or maybe, they’re doing everything right.

  • Danny

    WOW! Healthier eating habits. Kids are taller and skinnier yet not bigger. great cuisine with lots of nutrients and proteins and little fat. Seems like such an amazing diet the Japanese got there. Envious.

  • winterolive

    Thank you for the article. As a 5-foot-tall woman who has lived in the United States for many years, I was encouraged by your new perspective.