Studying in Japan as a larger person

I’m sitting in my room tossing clothes back and forth, nervous about my first trip to Japan starting the next day. Ever the millennial, I sent texts to all of my friends hoping to gain comfort in their words. Many of them responded quizzically: “You were so excited for this trip just yesterday, what caused this sudden change?” they asked. “Is it the long flight? Being so far away from friends and family?”

“No, none of that,” I sighed. “It’s… well, I think I might be too fat to be in Japan.”

I am a 280 pound, 6 foot man. While large, in the U.S., people my size are relatively common. I’m accustomed to the occasional rude comment here and there whenever I pick up fast food, work out at the gym, or am forced off an amusement park ride since they couldn’t buckle the seat belt around me. Beyond that though, my weight doesn’t really affect how I go about my day-to-day life. It’s easy enough to find clothing that fits me, and the vast majority of people are indifferent to my weight.

As such, I didn’t really give much thought about being a bigger person in Japan. At least, not until one of our faculty leads sent out a last-minute e-mail mentioning that the largest size of clothing we’ll find in Japan at almost all shops there is the equivalent of a U.S. extra large (I wear 2XL and 3XL, depending on the brand). I wasn’t terribly concerned about shopping for clothes there, but something clicked in my head at that moment: “Oh my gosh, bigger people aren’t that common in Japan. Will I be ridiculed wherever I go? Will people wonder if all Americans are as large as me?” These thoughts swiftly took over the excitement of traveling to another country. 

My first trip to Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto

Happily, most of these fears ended up being unfounded. I never really noticed anybody treating me different for being bigger – at least in a way that was intended to offend me. But there were some problems and amusing scenarios I ran into: 

Too big for Japan, too small for my pants

I walked and biked all over the place during my first summer in Japan. By the end of the program, I probably could have walked to my favorite parts of town blindfolded! Because of all the increased exercise, I found myself losing weight pretty quickly (I was down to 240 pounds by the end of July).

However, this led to a peculiar problem: my pants, so snug and perfect around my waist before, were falling off me, and my old belt wasn’t able to help. Unfortunately, while I was pleased with my newly-lost stomach size, Japanese stores still weren’t equipped for shoppers of my size. I scoured clothing store after clothing store looking for a belt that fit me without luck. Eventually, I gave up, purchased 2 small belts, tied them together, and wore this Frankenbelt until I returned home. 


The program I was on had me work as a student intern on the “Michigan“, a paddle boat in Otsu (the capitol of Shiga) designed after the “Michigan Princess“. In fancy terms, our goal was to serve as cultural ambassadors, teaching Shiga citizens basic English and telling them about life in Michigan. In more realistic terms, we were there to be waiters and greet people as they entered the boat. 

Elly, my little moose friend, in front of the Michigan boat

As people made the short trek up the docks and onto the boat, my classmates and I would stand just outside. There, we welcomed customers with a loud “Irasshaimase“, or “Come on in”. Most of the people we interacted with bowed and walked on by. Copy+paste about 100 times, and that made up 99% of my experiences greeting people before the cruise started.

There was, however, an encounter that went much more awkwardly than normal. One day, a small elderly couple made there way up to the boat. As usual, I greeted them with a hearty “Irasshaimase“. The older woman bowed, but the old man stopped and gave me a long, baffled stare. After a while, he slowly walked up to me, staring intensely at my stomach the whole way. I expected him to stop and walk along at some point, but he got mere inches from me before he planted his feet down and stopped. 

At this point, I was equal part uncomfortable and confused. My mind was racing, trying to figure out what I did to apparently offend this guy: “Did I do something to offend him? What in the world is going on here? Am I in trouble?” So in an effort to maybe diffuse the situation, I confusedly asked “Can I help you, sir?”

At that moment, the man’s head shot up to look me in the eyes, his expression unchanged from its earlier intensity. Then, something even more unexpected and baffling: he reached out with his right hand and lightly grabbed my stomach. He even rubbed my stomach in a light circular motion, his eyes still locked onto mine. 

I had no clue what was happening. This random elderly man was looking angrily at me while rubbing my stomach. I certainly don’t remember reading about how to respond to this situation when perusing my “Japan 101” book on the flight to Osaka! So I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing, but he beat me to the punch:

“Buddha”, he said dramatically. Then he backed away and hysterically cackled with glee. In perfect English, he joyfully asked “What are you, 100 kilograms?!?”

At this point in the trip I was about 260 pounds. So I did the math in my head and stammered “Umm, I’m actually closer to 120 kilograms-“

“120 KILOGRAMS?!?” he shouted so loud that other people were turning to see what all the hullabaloo was about (except for his wife, who was frantically walking away in embarrassment). “THAT’S AMAZING!!!” He then slapped me on the back a few times, laughed some more, and scurried onto the boat himself.

Minutes passed, and I was still standing there in shock. It was all just so sudden, so… weird. It was certainly the first time somebody in Japan made a spectacle of my weight, but I don’t think he meant harm by it all – it was just so genuinely surprising for him to see a person of my size that he wanted to have a little silly fun with it. Nevertheless, it took me a full week to process all that happened in just that minute or two.

I look back on the event fondly, if only because it’s certainly a bizarre, fun story to tell friends and family! To this day though, whenever I hear the word “Buddha”, I’m brought back to that weird encounter I had with this elderly Japanese man.

“You can eat all of that? That’s so cool!”

One hot afternoon, my classmates and I were to give a presentation at the University of Shiga Prefecture about the differences we noticed between Michigan’s and Shiga’s cultures. During the lunch break, we had the opportunity to casually hang out with some of the students at the university cafeteria. 

University of Shiga Prefecture students and my classmates

I didn’t eat breakfast that morning, so when getting my food I grabbed a couple extra sides and the extra large portion of rice. It was a lot of food, but it didn’t seem like an abnormally large amount to me. I found out very quickly that that was only because I was thinking of things in terms of American portion sizes. 

I got back to our table and sat my food down. “Is that your’s and Jody’s (one of my classmates) food?” one of the Shiga students asked. 

“No? It’s just my lunch.” 

As if I had activated some sort of alarm, the rest of the Shiga students immediately stopped their chatter and stared at me. “All of this,” one of them motions to my tray, “just for you?”

Preparing for them to be disgusted, I quietly answered “Yeah…”

The students trade glances with each other. Then…

“That’s awesome! How do you do it? I could only eat half of that, that’s so cool!”

From that point on, our conversations focused on how impressed they were that I could pack away so many calories. Much like my experience with the elderly Japanese man above, I don’t think they meant any harm – I think they were just truly surprised to see somebody eat as much as I do. I’m glad that they were impressed, but honestly I couldn’t help but feel bad that I was probably reinforcing the stereotypical view of Americans in their minds.

All-in-all, being large in Japan comes with some of its own unique quirkiness. Fortunately though, even with the above challenges and bizarre scenarios, my weight didn’t negatively impact my experience. As such, if you’re a larger person, then I encourage you be confident in yourself and not worry too much about studying in Shiga!

One thought

  1. Thankfully I never had anyone grab me or talk about my food intake (my portions shrank, but I ate way more often), but you really hit the nail on the head when it comes to the anxiety of going abroad to Japan….or anywhere else. I also lost a lot of weight there, but luckily my belt was up to the challenge. Thank you for talking so candidly on this subject – it actually makes me feel better knowing that other bigger people have had similar feelings about traveling to other countries, especially Japan where you feel too big for everything.

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