A nose by any other name (or nationality) is as sweet


Special To The Japan Times

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.

  • Edward O’Brien

    Did you actually get paid for writing this drivel?

  • Brodie Taylor

    I have a hideous nose, it’s HUGE and the bridge sticks out, the septum is crooked. My whole life I’ve wanted a nose job. People in Japan keep staring at and commenting on my big, or “tall” nose, even asking how long it is in centimetres. Many Japanese people have explained to me that in Japan big noses are good so these comments are intended as compliments rather than insults. I still find it hard to believe that they’re trying to “compliment” my unsightly nose when they gawk at it and exclaim “so big!”. Are huge crooked noses *really* an object of desire in Japan, or are my Japanese friends trying to spare my feelings when they try to explain away the frequent comments I get when I go out?

    • Rebecca

      I’d say both.

      Usually, they are talking about an average Western nose. I’ve seen people point out white models and actresses as examples of people having an attractive “big nose”. We would hardly consider a supermodel to have a “big nose”! They mean longer than the typical Japanese nose and with a more prominent bridge than the typical Japanese nose.

      I’d say your friends are doing some quick face saving when they realise they have offended you. I would just tell them to stop talking about it as it upsets you or, when you hear a comment from a new person, make a face to show you are angry or upset and embarrass them.

      An acquaintance of mine was bullied at school and called “Pin head” cue moving to Japan and constantly being told, “You have a small face!”

      Unfortunately, you will have to accept that comments about your nose will be heard continuously if you stay in Japan.

      I have a small to average-sized western nose and still hear the “big nose” comment all the time. I usually just say, “Small nose” back in the same tone that it was said to me.

      When Japanese youngsters talk about me in anyway, I now say, “Can I talk
      about your body now?” This usually shuts them up. Even when they are
      actually being complimentary, I usually put on an over-the-top response
      and start praising their beautiful hair or skin. They then feel
      embarrassed to be singled out and have an “Oh! Right!” moment.

      A friend of mine has a hang-up about her nose caused by her father’s comment when she was a child: “You have a big nose – like me!” She even consulted a plastic surgeon who said that there was nothing that could be done as it was the tip of the nose that was wider, the bridge was average. I was shocked that she considered her nose so big that she should have surgery. It’s a little bigger than average but that’s all.

      An ex of mine had a huge nose but wasn’t really bothered as he was very confident. He never mentioned it. Other people did, of course, especially when he came to Japan. I was cringing but he just laughed and said, “Yeah, as big as Mount Fuji!”

      Perhaps your nose is actually far bigger to yourself than to anyone who isn’t Japanese. If it is really bothering you, why don’t you talk to a surgeon. However, any deep-rooted insecurity you have won’t disappear because you nose is made smaller.

  • DaveTheLogician

    Good one, Jack. I remember when I lived in Japan (15 years), I used to write humorous letters to the Japan Times (BI) and often, regardless the length, they would publish them. I would get responses from other ex-pats encouraging me to write more humorous letters. I hope you are encouraged, as well. I never wrote one on big noses, though (although I, too, have a large one). I have seen many Japanese with big noses and from what I could gather over the years is that a big nose is looked at as aristocratic (even on women). Interesting. PS: The abbreviation “BI” means “before internet.” LOL

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    I stopped reading at “as an Australian I had a big nose”. What has being Australian got to do with the size of your nose?? – it is your passport, not your race!! What about Australians of Japanese descent – do they magically grow bigger noses once they get an Australian passport?!?!

    • Buck

      I understand your position and felt the same way at first. However, on second thought, the same could be said for using
      Japanese. Japanese isn’t a race either, and a person of European ancestry could also have moved to Japan and won`t magically grow a smaller nose. Nevertheless, this type of critique isn’t useful; given some generalizations about population groups are useful at times. The author wrote an interesting article, you might consider finishing it.

  • J.P. Bunny

    A mighty proboscis I do have, and proud of it. Many a times I have been told that my nose is big, but I just inform them that theirs is too small. Mine is big enough to warm the cold winter air, and has a lengthy enough nasal passage to capture all those germs that the tiny nosed natives are so paranoid about.

  • Ain

    I’m surprised that you didn’t tell the drugstore guy that every doctor and nurse in the west wears masks, which keep germs both in and out pretty well. I’ve worn Japanese masks, the design is basically the same. I think my nose is normal, but one day when a kid was examining me, he said インコみたい。Gee, thanks?!!