How tall are Japanese people? Are they getting taller? And what is it like being in Japan as a tall foreigner? I’ll answer these and more questions today as we explore… What is tall in Japan?
The average height in Japan is 172 cm (5’7″) for men and 158 cm (5’2″) for women. Therefore, if you are above 6 feet (183 cm), you will likely stand out and receive compliments for your height. You may also hit your head on some old doorways.
Below, I’ll put this data into context, and I’ll explain why Japanese people have grown much taller in the last century. I’ll show how Japanese height compares to other countries and how tall are the tallest people in Japan.
Average Height in Japan
The average height of a Japanese man is about 172 cm (5 feet, 6.5 inches). The average height of a Japanese woman is about 158 cm (5 feet, 2 inches). (source)
To put that into context, Japanese people are about 3-4 cm shorter than Americans, British people, and Australians on average.
I discuss how Japan compares to other Asian countries below.
The height difference between Westerners and Japanese used to be much greater, but Japanese people have gotten taller in the last century. Still, Japanese people are shorter than most Westerners on average.
Visiting Japan as a Tall Foreigner
What does this mean for you as a tall foreigner? Will you feel like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, where the shower head only comes up to your chest?
If you’re over 6 feet tall (183 cm), you may “stand out” in Japan for your height. This is especially true outside of Tokyo, where there are fewer foreigners. You will likely receive compliments about how tall you are.
It will also help you see above most people in crowded places. And you’re probably going to hit your head on some doorways—especially if you stay in some older buildings.
As explained below, Japanese people used to be about 6 inches shorter than they are today. So many of the older doorways are especially low.
It’s easy to find funny pictures of tall white guys standing next to tiny, old-fashioned doorways in Japan.
If you’re 6’5″ or taller, buying clothes in Japan may be a challenge. You’ll need to look for outfitters that specialize in clothes for taller people.
Why Are Japanese People So Short?
The two big factors that determine height are genetics and nutrition. It is believed that genetics determines 60% to 80% of height, while nutrition determines the other 20% to 40%. (source)
So, how do these factors explain the height of Japanese people?
Well, it was suggested in Discover Magazine that East Asians are shorter due to a gene called HMGA2. The “short” allele of this gene appears to be much more common in East Asian populations, compared to Europe and Africa.
But that’s not the only explanation that’s been offered.
One funny but unlikely explanation came from Den Fujita—the guy who opened the first McDonald’s in Japan:
“The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years… If we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin become white, and our hair blonde.”– Den Fujita, Japanese entrepreneur who brought McDonald’s to Japan
This McDonald’s theory sounds a bit un-scientific… But there are actually some well-founded, nutrition-based explanations for recent changes in average height in Japan.
Are Japanese People Getting Taller?
Over the last century, Japanese people have certainly gotten taller. Between roughly 1950 and 2000, Japanese 11-year-olds got more than 5.5 inches taller! (source)
In fact, between 1914 and 2014, Japanese height increased more than any other country except South Korea. (source)
This increase in height has even caused some problems in Japan. Many taller Japanese people today complain that tables, chairs, doorways, and other features were made for shorter people. (source)
Why did Japanese people get so much taller? It’s believed to be due to better nutrition and medicine that wards off infectious disease. It may have been due to increases in animal protein in the diet over the last century.
A 2018 study explains that much of the increase in height in Japan (and South Korea, too) has been due to increased growth in the long bones during infancy. So nutrition during pregnancy and infancy may have played a large role.
The Tallest Japanese People
Japanese people may be shorter than Europeans on average—but that doesn’t mean every Japanese person is short. Not at all!
The record books include some extremely tall Japanese people:
- Yasutaka Okayama – At 7’8″ (234 cm), he is the tallest player ever drafted in the NBA. He is also the tallest living Japanese person. Learn more here.
- Yoshimitsu Matsuzaka – At 7’9″ (237 cm), he’s the tallest confirmed person to have ever lived in Japan. He died in the 1960s.
- Akashi Shiganosuke – This legendary sumo wrestler was purported to be 8’6″ (258 cm) in the 1600s. His actual existence is disputed. Learn more here.
Meanwhile, one of the tallest women in Japan is Megumi Kawamura. She’s a former volleyball player and fashion model, standing at 6’4″ (193 cm).
Who Is Taller, Japanese or Chinese People?
Chinese and Japanese people are about the same height. One source reports Japanese men at 172 cm and Chinese men at 169.5 cm. However, the average height for both Japanese and Chinese women was the same at 158 cm. (source)
However, the data can look different depending on the source, the year, and the age of the people surveyed.
On those maps, China, Korea, and Taiwan are a little bit taller than Japan on average. Meanwhile, several Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, and Cambodia are shorter on average.
Lastly, Thai people are shown to be roughly the same height as Japanese people.