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Saturday, Dec. 8, 2007


Baby boy body parts and the next big, uh, 'thing'

The Japanese are fascinated with big body parts. Got a big foot? This will throw the Japanese into fits of laughter and exclamations of "Ooki, desu ne?" ("It's big, isn't it?"). The Japanese often refer to their own faces with amusement because they are generally bigger and rounder compared to the smaller and finer-boned Western faces.

Other times, bigger is better, such as with noses. Noses are an obsession with many Japanese (read any novel by Haruki Murakami), and there is a universal feeling among the Japanese that as a race, they would look better if they had bigger, longer noses.

But that is not the only thing the Japanese are obsessed with when it comes to big body parts.

I recently went over to my next door neighbor's house to meet her new grandchild. Her daughter had just had a baby, and the daughter was living with her mother for the first month, as is the custom in Japan. The baby boy lay on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket.

"Amy, look," said my neighbor, undressing the baby.

The baby lay there naked, making cute little baby noises.

"Don't you think something is unusual?" she asked me.

"No, he looks perfectly normal to me," I said.

"Ookii, ja nai?" ("Isn't it big?"), she said.

"Isn't what big?" I said.

She pointed to his, um, "thing," and said, "Ookii desu ne!" (It's big, isn't it!)

"Well, uh —" I said, not really being very familiar with babies and their body parts.

"We thought," interjected the daughter, "that since you are a foreigner, and foreigners are known to have bigger 'things' than Japanese, that maybe you could tell us if this would be normal for a foreign baby. My sister's boys never had 'things' this big.

"Well, uh," I said again.

My God, they had brought me in as an expert! They wanted to settle this once and for all, and they thought that surely a foreigner would be able to tell them the truth about their son — that he was going to be a very popular man some day and that in the meantime, he'd be king of infants.

Sensing they were a bit dissatisfied with my "Well, uh," conclusion, I said, "Ookii, ka na —" ("Maybe it is kind of big").

One thing was obvious, though: The Japanese are not embarrassed to talk about body parts in public. I noticed this long before, because I am often asked by Japanese men if my foreign husband has a big "thing." I just laugh it off, without giving an answer, but I get the question so often, it shows how big the rumor really is that foreigners have it better in that department.

The mother and daughter continued, "Ookii, desu ne?" each time putting more emphasis on the "o" in "ookii," as if to mean "very big."

So I changed my diagnosis accordingly, "Maybe it is very big."

Women's body parts seem to be fair game as well, to a point. I have met Japanese women on the beach who, upon meeting me for the first time, have said, "Amy, you have big breasts, don't you," (even though I don't). It seems to be a way of complimenting another woman.

It occurred to me that my neighbors had probably shown the boy to other people on the island too. The poor kid will never grow up with any privacy. Everyone will point to him and say, "That's the kid with the very big thing."

My neighbor confirmed that yes, they had shown the child to several other mothers on the island, and everyone's conclusion was "ookii." She seemed very proud of her grandson.

Which is probably why each time they said "ookii," the "o" got longer and more emphasized. Which got me to thinking that maybe they weren't just putting emphasis on the "o," but were also adding an honorific "O," as in "honorable very big thing."

And when you think of Shinto ceremonies and the emphasis on phallus worship, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. This boy could very well have a very high standing in the Shinto community some day — a master of ceremonies, so to speak. Indeed, this boy had a very bright future.

So I turned to my neighbor and said, "Actually, I think it's very, very big."

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