When I first came to Japan many years ago the thing that struck me the most was seeing people wearing what I thought were surgical masks in public places. Before that I had only ever seen people wearing them on American TV programs set in hospitals, or during my one experience as an in-patient when my appendix burst just before my 18th birthday.
Why do they do it, I wondered?
One of my British friends explained it to me. Japanese people are group-minded and they always do what is best for the group. If they are ill, they don’t want to spread their germs to other people so they wear masks out of consideration.
A Japanese friend of mine had a different explanation. It’s like wearing a condom for protection when you’re having sex. Japan is very crowded so every day you are in close proximity to a lot of people. You had better wear such a mask so you don’t catch anything — especially during flu season.
After a while I got used to seeing people wearing masks and eventually developed a hankering to try out one for myself. So one day at lunch I set off for a nearby drugstore to satisfy this urge.
The shop was small and crammed full of an enormous amount of merchandise piled up in seemingly random order. I tried looking around by myself, but was defeated by the sheer volume of goods stacked up in the shop.
When I went up to the counter to ask for some help, the pharmacist himself came out from behind the counter to show me the masks. There turned out to be a large array and he kindly explained the benefits and prices of each type. He seemed to actually relish explaining them to me.
Finally, I picked one packet out and told him I would take them. At this his manner changed from enthusiastic to incredulous. He explained to me gently and slowly as if to a child that he would not sell me any masks because he didn’t want me to waste my money.
It was all because of my nose.
As an Australian, I had a big nose and having such a big nose would render wearing the mask useless. He demonstrated. If I put on a mask it would stick out a bit because of my nose and would not be flush with my face. Hence air, germs and so on would get it at the sides. He bade me a good day and returned to his duties.
I could hear him explaining it to the other staff behind the counter and they all understood his point immediately. They had a good laugh at my opaque inability to see what should have been perfectly obvious to anyone.
I did not think that my nose was particularly big and in any case I didn’t believe that having a large nose would preclude someone from wearing such a device. That night I went to a big chain drugstore near Ikebukuro Station where I had to change trains, found some masks, bought them and tried one on. It worked just fine.
This was the beginning of what I think of in capitals and italics as Adventures with My Nose in Japan. From that inauspicious start I now have a veritable Nose Saga of tales about Japanese people’s reaction to or assumptions about my nose.
These assumptions tend to be different from the ones I heard about noses while I was growing up. In Australia, if someone had a big nose, his other extremities were likely to be big as well. This applied to men of course. Apart from that I never really heard any other particular stereotypes about noses. Here in Japan the size issue revolved around being other.
Like all common tropes non-Japanese face in Japan, this one gradually became tedious and so I invented various responses over the years. These ranged from: “Oh, really, I have a big nose? I’ve never noticed that before. Thanks for telling me” to “Actually in my home country this is a small nose. Most people’s noses are so much bigger than this. Where I come from, if you call out to someone and they turn around to talk you, you’d better duck to get out of the way of their schnozzle” to “Why do Japanese people have such small noses?”
I guess the perceived homogenous composition of the Japanese population contributes to this phenomenon as with many other things non-Japanese put up with in Japan. In places with a more diverse mix of people, talking about the size of a person’s nose would not be such a hot topic, unless it were some hell of a mighty proboscis.
On this lovely planet of ours noses come in all manner of sizes, shapes and colors, but in the end we all smell the same way.