June 01, 2017

The tall and short of it


Height is a genetic puzzle. For the males in my family, averaging was the result, not Mendelian selection: shorter than the tall parent, taller than the short parent. Then there are tall/short combinations that produce tall offspring and tall parents who produce taller children.

Average height in Japan over the past century demonstrates the importance of environmental factors. And having leveled off since 1960, the importance of genetics, though Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (6' 3") and Anne Watanabe (5' 9") handily beat regression to the mean.

Once a country climbs high enough up Maslow's hierarchy, genes do up to 80 percent of the heavy lifting (so say the geneticists). Over 423 genetic regions are connected to height and they mix and match in ways that are hard to predict.

Scientists like to study identical and fraternal twins to tease such things out. I would recommend studying haafu: the offspring of a Japanese parent and not-Japanese (non-Asian) parent.

There's an analogy here to how "Japanese" the child appears. Masao Kusakari, for example, regularly plays Japanese characters in NHK historical dramas. But I wouldn't have otherwise guessed that Risa Stegmayer has a Japanese mother (other than her speaking fluent Japanese).

My theory is that "averaging" kicks in when similarly functioning genes are mirrored at the same loci on both chromosomes in the pair. But if there's a null set on one of the chromosomes, the height genes take over.

Masao Kusakari is six feet tall (his father was an American GI killed during the Korean War), way above average for a Japanese born in 1950. Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish (Iranian father) is a towering six-feet-five.

But the award for comedic contrast goes to Jun Soejima, a presenter on Asa-Ichi, NHK's morning chat show. He hosts the Sugowaza Q (スゴ技Q) segment with Yumiko Udou, a Japanese woman of average height.

Jun Soejima (American father, Japanese mother) is six-foot-five. Wikipedia adds that his Afro adds eight inches, and also says that he traveled abroad only last year and doesn't speak English. In other words, height aside, a typical Japanese (yes, he played basketball in college).


Sugowaza Q translates roughly as "Super Skills IQ," about smarter ways to do common household activities like cooking.

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