Clothing Sizes as a Reflection of Gender and Body Issues in the Japanese Society

I have always had some trouble finding clothes that are a great fit for my body. Even as a child, my arms have always been my “problem area” as I gain body fat the fastest in my arms. After my dramatic weight loss from being obese at 16 to being underweight at 19, I had thought that shopping would be a lot easier–but it didn’t.

I made a mistake of not exercising and simply relying on a extreme diet which resulted in losing 88 pounds in 2.5 years, with a few periods of weight gain in between. Because of the lack of exercise, I had some excess skin, as well as some subcutaneous fat in my arms. While I was a size 0 when I was 19 up to when I was 21, I still had a hard time buying clothes in Japan due to these bodily characteristics.

For instance, many slim Japanese women tend to wear slightly lose clothes that complement their small frame. However, at that time, whenever I tried on any dress, blouse, or skirt from many Japanese clothing shops, there was always a small problem: either the body (torso) would be a perfect fit but the sleeve would make my arms look big (as they have always been big), or the sleeves would be fantastic but the torso part would be too lose, making me look bigger than my size. Back then, this seemed like a major problem, but little did I know that I would be facing even more clothing problems in a few year’s time.

In a span of 2.5 years, I went from a size 0 to a size 2, to 4, to 8, and recently, a size 10. I am very happy about this weight gain as I feel free and more like myself. Being a size 10 suits my personality, my preferred eating habits, and my lifestyle more than when I was a size 0. I feel healthier now, especially since I have been going to the gym and building muscle mass.

However, living in Japan as a curvy, “intermediate”-sized woman is a pain. Since I will be graduating early next year, I have started the dreaded shuushoku katsudo (job hunting), or more commonly used in its shorterned form, “shuukatsu”. Company seminars and job interview here require wearing business suits, also known as “recruit suits”. For women, this would typically be a white, collared button-down shirt with a black jacket and black skirt (or alternatively, black slacks). Because of my hypersensitivity, however, I can only wear collarless jackets and blouses, making it even more challenging to find the perfect suit!

A certain shop which had 42 (XXL) as its largest size for women’s suits

Late in summer, my partner and I went to all the suit shops we can find in the major shopping districts of Tokyo, but to no avail. Most of them only have up to 2XL for women. All the suit jackets I tried on in this size fitted my body just fine, but not my arms, which have a combination of some body fat and muscle mass. Aoyama had a 3XL which was a perfect fit for my arms, but was too big for my torso! It’s important to note that, elsewhere in the world, the measurements for what is considered 3XL in Japan–from my experience, at least–is only an M or an L, depending on how big the clothing is made to be.

So when I found out that none of their ready-made suits fitted me well, I asked one staff in each of the suit shops we visited if I could get a custom-made suit instead. Unfortunately, they replied that they only have them for men and not for women!

I noticed that they had more items available for men than for women.

Instead of relying on specialty suit shops, I decided to look for tailors instead. Luckily, we live near Ginza which has about 3 or 4 shops specializing in custom-made suits for both men and women. I had my measurements taken last week and I’m getting it in mid-November!

Aside from business suits, I also had a hard time trying to find casual clothes when I went from a size 8 to a size 10. But it turned out that it’s actually easier to find shops selling casual clothes for intermediate- and plus-size women than to find suit shops that offer these sizes! So far, I’ve been getting my clothes from Uniqlo, GU, and H&M, as well as Talbott’s, though the latter brand is very pricy. Even in these shops, however, sizes for a few shirts, jeans, and pants are still limited and there were clothes that I really wanted to buy but couldn’t because they didn’t fit a certain part of my body quite well.

Japanese working women are known for their exquisite fashion that I truly admire. However, I can’t wear any of these beautiful clothes!

While I understand that from a business perspective, making plus-size clothes in a country where majority of women have small frames and slim bodies would not lead to huge profits, I believe that the Japanese fashion industry needs to cater to a wide variety of female body shapes and sizes.

Outside Japan, the body positivity movement has been gaining momentum through the popularity of intermediate-size (sizes 10 to 14) and plus-size (size 16 and above) models, such as Ashley Graham and Iskra Lawrence. This movement has also started recently in Japan through the efforts of comedianne-performer Naomi Watanabe and her brand, PUNYUS. I am hoping that in the near future, the Japanese society will better accommodate people of various sizes. Equating slimness to health is also a big problem, as this ignores the different health issues faced by those considered “slim” or “skinny”. In addition, having bigger sizes for men’s clothing than for women’s clothing also illustrates gender disparity in contemporary Japan, which I hope will be addressed in the coming years.


A Home in Japan for A Foreign Couple

Throughout my stay in Japan, I have experienced living in three different homes. When I was younger, I had stayed a few times at my aunt’s condominium unit whenever my mom and I would visit her, her Japanese husband, and my beloved little cousin Riki.

It was a two-bedroom unit with a spacious living room. I specially remember looking out the veranda sliding doors a few times a day, and I was sometimes allowed to go out into the veranda itself. It was facing a wide field on top of a hill where high school boys would sometimes play baseball. My aunt’s house is located in a condiminium (called mansion in Japanese) surrounded by other apartment buildings situated on a top of a steep hill in a rather peaceful semi-rural area close to where Tokyo Bay and the Pacific Ocean meet.

Later on, I also experienced living in a old, small two-storey house when I was taken in by a Japanese family. It was attached to a bigger house by a quaint garden.

Finally, a few months into our relationship, I decided to move in with my amazing partner. We’re living in a one-bedroom condominium unit in a very convenient residential area in Tokyo surrounded by konbini (convenience stores), clinics, and a 24-hour grocery store. It’s also located near Tokyo Bay!

Living in a mansion involves quite a number of rules depending on the apartment. Some allow pets, some don’t. Interestingly, one of last week’s presenters in my Visual Anthropology class mentioned how some apartments allow pets but not foreigners in order to prevent problems of miscommunication arising from the language barrier between the tenant and the landlord.

One of our food pantry cabinets: 90% is foreign (imported) including snacks and canned goods, and only 10% is Japanese (mostly cooking condiments).

Since we’re living in a 1LDK (one bedroom with a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen), our space is quite limited. Fortunately, we do have several storage cabinets. We actually have two for food near the kitchen. One of these cabinets also stores game CDs, boxes for electronics, and other things we almost never use but would like to keep just in case.

Aside from this, we do have two other storage cabinets near the door. One is used for shoes and the other for stuff we’d like to throw away (e.g. two old printers, an old rug, and several cardboard boxes).

What’s supposed to be the bedroom has my partner’s drumset instead. However, since we’ve received two complaints about loud noises and vibrations from our neighbours, he sadly hasn’t been using it since then. This is another disadvantage of living in a mansion–one has to be careful about making loud sounds, so there’s no freedom to play instruments or some funky celebratory music. Sadly, this means we can’t turn the house into our own private dance club whenever we feel like it. 🙂

The living room is essentially our bedroom, where our double bed is located across a wide wooden table. The latter is our study, dining, and gaming area where we work on our laptops and read books, and have our meals if we’re at home. It’s also where we play The Elder Scrolls Online and, recently, Red Dead Redemption 2 on our PlayStation consoles and two flat-screen monitors.


While we do love staying at home most weekends and most days during semestral breaks, there are a couple of things that we don’t really enjoy about our house. For one, the bathtub is small and my 6 ft. 1 partner cannot fit in it. This problematic feature is not exclusive to our house, as we have been to several hotels in and out of Tokyo and they all have tubs built for those of average Japanese size and height.

We’re also not very fond of the kitchen. As shown in the above photo, there’s but a small space for a chopping board. Since we’re busy university students, we always take our meals outside, buy from convenience stores, or order using food delivery apps. However, some weekends, when I do have some time to spare to make some homemade meals, I find it hard to cook because of the size of our kitchen.

This photo was taken last winter when I still had long hair and was a size 6.

Nevertheless, we love our current place. We like how comfortable our bed is and how well-insulated the room is during winter. We love the two wooden cube organizers from Nitori that we assembled ourselves. We love how the mansion is conveniently situated, that we need only but go down to the lobby and go to the drugstore and konbini next door to buy necessities and snacks. But most of all, we love how we have each other, helping us cope with the bads of not only our house but life in general.


Tabehoudai and Health

One out of the plethora of things that my partner and I have in common is our love of food. We both have big appetites and this is why we love going to tabehoudai (all-you-can-eat buffets) about once or twice a month.

Aside from all-day buffet restaurants such as Bittersweets Buffet in Shinjuku, Stamina Taro which is a yakiniku (grilled meat) buffet, and Sweets Paradise, a sweets buffet popular among Japanese and foreigners alike, there’s also a wide variety of places that offer tabehoudai at certain times of the day, but usually during lunch time. This ranges from Indian restaurants such as Nirvanam with several branches in Tokyo, to Italian restaurants like Salvatore Cuomo at Roponggi Hills, where we had our lunch today.

The deserts table where the children enjoyed coating marshmallows and waffle slices with chocolate

As it is Halloween weekend, Roponggi Hills’ Halloween trick-or-treat event brought dozens of children and their parents into this little Italian food place. Because of this, we were not able to take photos of the pizza, pasta, and hot dishes table where there was always a line of people waiting for their turn to take a serving of each of their favorite food items.

Having been to many tabehoudai in and out of Tokyo, my partner and I have noticed an interesting thing about Japanese buffet-goers–something about salads.


We have noticed that the first thing most Japanese people, especially women of any age, get when they go to buffets is salad. Middle-aged men dining with their wives and children tend to this as well, but many teenage boys and young men seem to start off with something other than greens–be it pasta or fries.

I have been to different branches of Sweets Paradise in my almost-five years here in Japan and everytime I went, I would always be surprised at how–even at a buffet dedicated to cakes and other sweets–the groups of teenage girls, young women, and mothers who frequent this establishment all prefer to start their meal with vegetables.

It is amazing how dedicated they are at keeping themselves healthy. Back in my country, salad bars at buffets tend to be small as the majority of those who prefer having daily vegetable intake are the elderly who are trying their best to stay healthy and live longer.

This makes me wonder… why do Japanese place such a high value on health at, perhaps, the expense of “living a little” and enjoying some meals without vegetables? Is this a practice learned from their family or from their peers? Interestingly, I have heard that some of the oldest-living humans don’t necessarily eat salads for every meal, tend to eat plenty of carbohydrates instead, and remain physically active.

While I love salad on the side every once in a while, everytime my partner and I decide to dine at buffets, we instinctively skip the salad bar and proceed to the appetizers. For us, buffets are special places that we don’t go to every day or week, making them synonymous to indulgement and celebration.

Health is paramount to survival and it is admirable how the Japanese take good care of their physical well-being. However, it is worrying that those who do not conform to this seemingly normative practice have the risk of being labeled “unhealthy” or “undisciplined”.

Moreover, another significant aspect of health is mental well-being. As such, finding some time to break from the shackles of everyday greens and alternate healthy and unhealthy eating habits may be better for the mind–especially for women who suffer from PMS, which in many cases, involves intense cravings for sweets and additive-filled snacks.

What do you think? And what food do you like to ear first when at a buffet?