|ISSUE 6 / SUMMER 2007|
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|Showcasing the best emerging and established talent in writing, photography, music and film.|
by Laura Fraser
by Joe Loya
Six Things I Will Not Say Tomorrow at my Father's Funeral
by Derek Patton Pearcy
Oracles, Egypt and Auras
by Mimi Ghez
My Eczema, Myself
by Laura Barcella
A Gut Above
by Andy Raskin
A Gut Above
by Andy Raskin
Contestant Number One in the finals of the New York
Japanese Consulate's annual speech contest was a Hispanic man
in his early twenties who talked about playing baseball for a Tokyo
high school. In impressively accented Japanese he bragged about fitting
in so well that his teammates called him Taro, a common boy's
name. He compared himself to Tom Selleck's character in "Mr.
Baseball," a movie about an American who plays for a Japanese
Like many Americans, I grew up believing that, aside
from surface characteristics and susceptibility to certain diseases,
members of the human race are essentially the same. Perhaps this had
something to do with the many hours I spent watching Sesame Street
and listening to Free To Be You and Me.
A German girl named Astrid raised her hand.
I had already been studying in Japan for several months,
which was long enough to encounter other peculiar notions about the
physical uniqueness of the Japanese people. For instance, I had read
a book claiming that the Japanese brain was structured to hear the buzzing
of certain insects (especially cicadas) as a kind of music. Once, when
I had a cold and was sniffling on a train platform, a middle-aged woman
walked up to me and said, "How could your nose be that big and still
get stuffed up?" Even now, if you ask a Japanese woman how long a typical
pregnancy lasts, she'll probably say ten months.
I asked him, "You mean, like how cows need four stomachs to digest all that roughage?"
"Exactly," he said.
After studying in Japan I got a job in New York with
a company that produced TV programs — news, documentaries, game
shows — for networks in Japan. One night I was having a beer with
a cameraman named Naoki when the intestine question suddenly popped
into my mind. I asked him about it.
Naoki said that a friend once told him — I'll
try to put this more delicately than Naoki did — that because
of their long intestines, the Japanese were the world's most prodigious
producers of solid waste. In fact, the reason Japan lost World War II,
according to Naoki's friend's theory, was that American soldiers were
able root out hidden Japanese troops simply by looking for extra-tall
piles of human dung. To his credit, Naoki was laughing as he told me
this last part, and stressed that he wasn't one-hundred-percent sure
it was true.
"…when I looked at the intestines of Americans whose diet was primarily meat-based, I could hardly contain my astonishment. Their intestines were stiff and short… On the other hand, the intestines of people — even some Westerners — who subsisted entirely or primarily on a diet of grains, beans, vegetables and fruits, tended to be very smooth and relatively long. The latter type is common among Japanese people, and leads to a much better intestinal condition." 1Dr. Shinya was asserting that intestines got longer or shorter through physical or chemical interactions with food — not evolution. This made sense to me. Still, he was saying that Japanese intestines were, on average, longer.
I wondered if anyone had ever measured.
Five years later I was working for a computer consulting firm when a friend introduced me to Internet search engines. The first thing I typed into Yahoo was "Japanese AND intestines AND longer."
On the third page of results, in the archives of the
Historical Medical Library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia,
I found an abstract of an academic paper titled "The Length of the Intestine
in Japanese." I called the school and paid a librarian $10 to mail me
In my [previous paper,] 'Remarks on the Japanese Diet,' I said that very probably rice is better used up in the intestine of the Japanese than in that of the European, and I expressed a surmise that the Japanese intestine must be the longer of the two.
Consulting a German anatomy textbook2, Dr. Scheube learned that intestines in Europeans were typically between 800 and 900 centimeters long. To test his "surmise," he gathered measurements on the intestines of 26 Japanese corpses aged between 17 and 60 from a Japanese hospital. Of the combined data set, he wrote, "The 26 cases give a length of intestine of 953.7 cm. The maximum was 1203, the minimum 667; only 3 times the intestine was below 800…Accordingly, even the absolute length of the intestine is greater in the Japanese than in the European."
The difference was even more pronounced when
Dr. Scheube accounted for the fact that Europeans were, on average,
11 centimeters taller than Japanese people. Relative to body length,
he found that Japanese intestines were 20 percent longer. He cautioned,
however, that 26 intestines were not a lot to go on.
Ten years passed. I had moved to San Francisco, and
was dating a psychologist. One day she told me that a Japanese doctor
was visiting her hospital.
"Why?" she asked.
His name was Fumio Shaku, and he was a psychiatrist.
I invited him out for Korean barbecue, but he said he had never heard
about the intestine difference.
I discounted this last testimony as ludicrous until
a couple of years later, when my gallbladder became infected and had
to be removed. After my operation, I asked my doctor, an American colorectal
surgeon named Jeff Sternberg, the question I had now been asking for
nearly 20 years. He surprised me in two ways: (1) by not dismissing
the notion as ridiculous, and (2) by using the word "colonoscope" as
The Consulate held the speech contest in the
auditorium of the Japan Society, not far from the United Nations. Each
contestant spoke for ten minutes in Japanese, and I used my time to
lead the audience through my quest for the truth. I had to admit that
I still wasn't sure what the truth was, and that, as strange as it sounded,
Japanese intestines might indeed be longer.
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