Why Are Old People In Anime And Manga So Short?
by Justin Sevakis,
I've been wondering about this for a while now: why do the elderly are often presented as really short and small in anime/manga? But if there's a flashback and we see them in their youth, they have a regular height. No one finds this alarming to find out they have shrunk? Lol Oh turning 70? Downsizing overnight! Is it only to demonstrate their frailness because they are old? Although they are not always weak even if they got tinier.
Well, it's a stereotype, right? Many old people are short. Not as short as they are in anime and manga -- that's usually exaggerated for comedic effect.
While Japanese people are still considered on the average to be shorter than people in most Western countries, the gap has closed significantly in recent years, according to the research I did for this piece. This is thought to be because the Japanese diet has changed significantly: starting in the post-war era, "yoshoku," or Japanese foods with Western influence (think curry rice, omurice, korokke, stews, castellas, Hamburg steak, Japanese style spaghetti, and the like) became much cheaper and more accessible to people. Other Western foods like hamburgers and fried chicken also started making its way to Japan. As a result, more people ate meat and dairy from a young age, and people grew taller.
But this change has resulted in a significant generational shift. Today, younger Japanese folks over six feet tall aren't too rare. According to the Ministry of Education, over the second half of the 20th century the height of Japan's average 11-year-olds went up by over 5 1/2 inches! (And the girls grew by even more!) Similar growth has been observed in adults as well. And so, older people simply seem much shorter by comparison. Particularly if they grew up during wartime. Malnutrition in childhood will affect anyone's height, that's just biology.
Like I said, old people in general can be short. Time compresses us all - most of us lose about an inch between the ages of 30 and 70, and more thereafter. Older adults tend to lose muscle mass and gain fat; joints wear out, and osteoporosis -- chronic low bone density -- results in the spine condensing. While everyone can get osteoporsis, women are particularly susceptible: the "little old lady" stereotype has its roots in this. Osteoporosis of the neck and spine can also cause a stooped-over posture, or even a hunchback.
I found conflicting information as to whether osteoporosis is worse in Japan than in the west. Regardless, it is a very widespread and under-treated problem pretty much everywhere. However, despite a traditional Japanese diet being far lower in calcium (coming mostly from seaweed, soy and soft edible bones from small fish), hip injuries among elderly Japanese are far lower than in the West. It's thought that a more active lifestyle, particularly in the countryside, results in better muscle among elderly people.
The combination of shrinkage from aging and osteoporosis, and that (literal) generational gap can help explain why you see exaggerated, stereotypical depictions of it in anime and manga.
- The Recent Prevalence of Osteoporosis and Low Bone Mass in the United States Based on Bone Mineral Density at the Femoral Neck or Lumbar Spine
- UAMS: Do people shrink as they age?
- Epidemiology of osteoporosis in Japan (abstract)
- Comparison of osteoporosis and calcium intake between Japan and the United States (abstract)
- NYT: Tokyo Journal; The Japanese, It Seems Are Outgrowing Japan
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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