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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Embarrassment In A Japanese Hospital

So... I'm sick today... body aches and runny nose... it's the second time I've been sick in a month and I've not been sick in over eight years before this.

Part of the problem involves having an eight-year-old son who brings home a plethora of germs from his infested school. Sure... he's immune to them, but I'm not. Plus... my wife is working an internship in a hospital. She's immune to damn near everything it seems, but I'm not.

So... since I'm sick... let's look back at the one and only time I went to see a doctor in Japan... a doctor in a Japanese hospital and all the sh!t that swirled around it.

I had been sick back in October of 1990 for a couple of days, unable to go to school to team-teach in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken.

I was still new to the JET Programme and as such I didn't really enjoy the time off. Mostly because I didn't want to be seen as a weak gaijin (foreigner) to the Japanese.

In those days, as now, some Japanese take great pride in their ability to come into work while at Death's door, coughing up a lung and wearing a surgical mask to prevent the passing of germs.

In my case, however, it wasn't anything coming out of my mouth, but rather an incredible amount of diarrhea... so much so that I was unable to eat anything - not even water - without it causing me extreme distress in my tummy.

So... on the third day of me not being able to go into work, my bosses - Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san - from the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) came over to see if there was anything they could do for me.

I welcomed the help, because I was only three months into my stay in Japan and I had no idea how to communicate effectively to a doctor - or even where one was - or even if I was eligible to see one, what with me being a gaijin and all.

Well... one horrified glance at me, and Hanazaki-san--who spoke decent English--decreed I needed to go to the Ohtawara hospital now to see a doctor.

I bundled up as best I could, because it's October in Japan and where I was, it was already hovering around the 3C mark at 9AM... which combined with my illness had me shivering uncontrollably.

We arrived at the old and decrepit Ohtawara General Hospital post haste in Kanemaru's car... I think... it was all a bit blurry... and moved into the main floor administration center.

In the photo above... you can see the red cross on large white building... by the way... from my North balcony (as opposed to my sunnier Western balcony - yes... I had two balconies!), I had a fantastic daily view of the Nasu mountains scape everyday... and I'll tell you... seeing that... it amazed me and made me so glad I decided to go to Japan (with my dad's urging, of course).

Still... that hospital... it was not as pretty a place. At the time, after my own Zuiko Haitsu (Zuiko Mansion) apartment building, that hospital may have been the second tallest building in the city at around five or six stories.

The photo... I took that standing on my third-floor Northern balcony with my zoom lens on my Minolta (a camera that needed film back in those days of the 90s).

Hanazaki-san went over to sign me in, while Kanemaru-san tried his best to comfort me by using his Japanese-English dictionary to tell me one word at a time that I would be okay.

He had a lit cigarette going, as did all of the other patients waiting to be seen, a couple of the nurses and all of the doctors I saw going about their business.

I was a bit freaked out. I figured I'd come in with one stomach illness and leave with cancer.

There really was a grey-blue haze in the air from the exhaled tobacco smoke... a haze that had become stuck to the walls that I am sure were once white but were now a yellowed color... like old ivory...

When we had arrived at the hospital, by the way, I had to remove my shoes - my nice new Reebok runners - and place them in the pile by the hospital entrance way, take a pair of ill-fitting plastic slippers from a bin and shuffle along the stone floor that had so many cracks in it that no amount of cleaning would ever be enough to ensure the place was ever clean of germs. At least I got the green slippers... Kanemaru-san moaned about having to wear a pair of pink ones.

When my name was called by a doctor - let's just call him Doctor Suzuki because I've long forgotten, if I ever knew what it was... when my name was called: An-do-ryu-sensei (Andrew teacher), I staggered up while saying "Hai" (yes), and bowing towards him... and nearly keeling over.

While the doctor reached out to catch me - with his cigarette still in his right hand, I heard him mutter: "Oh... gaijin-no sensei. (Oh... the foreigner teacher)."

To which Hanazaki-san sternly corrected him: "Iie! Watashi wa gaijinde wa arimasen! Kare wa andoryƫ sensei desu. (No! He's not a gaijin. He is Andrew-teacher!)."

See... not everyone buys into that whole gaijin stuff!

The doctor actually looked shocked and actually bowed to everyone and said: "Gomen-ne (sorry, eh)."

"Daijobu-desu (it's okay)," I hissed as I doubled up in pain trying to squelch my bowels from emptying that burrito I ate six years ago... it's the only thing left in my stomach I though deliriously.

Anyhow... the doctor listens with his stethoscope, front and back, presses with his thumb and fingers back and front... taps my knee with a hammer (really... WTF?! I've never ever seen any reaction from my knees when anyone has ever tapped me there).

In Japanese, he asked my bosses if I had eaten anything strange... they translated and I told them everything I had eaten over the past seven days... nothing overly strange... rice, chicken, pork cutlets... school lunches... whatever... I heat all my foods up well...

The doctor nods and pulls out three wax paper sachets from out of his yellowish-white smock front pocket... and says I should take one a day in a glass of water... and I will feel better.

Really? I open one up... inside is a purple powder the likes of which I had never seen before (or since) in the annals of medicine.

He says I just have some sort of bug messing up my stomach... nothing serious...

But... I wasn't so sure of his diagnosis.

I had to tell him what I thought was really making me sick. This is where some of you are going to lose respect for me, or gain a lot more.

Glancing at Kanemaru-san and Hanazaki-san, I walked away from them and put my arm around the doctor in a conspiratorial manner... moving him and us farther from my bosses.

Speaking in a low whisper... I used pantomime... which Doctor Suzuki thankfully stopped me at three seconds in, because not only am I horrible at it, but he actually spoke pretty good English.

I think all Japanese speak good English and are just messing around with the foreigners by pretending they can't.

Anyhow... I said, in low shouts... that "I want to make sure you have all the facts in the medical case."

He nodded... I continued...

"I think I got sick after having sex."

"With a man?"

"Dame dayo! (No way in hell!)" I shouted at him, which I'm sure got the ears of my bosses pricked up even a bit more than they already were.

"Ah.. okay... a woman. Prostitute?"

"Uh.... no... my girlfriend."

From out of the peanut gallery, the man man who speaks next to zero English (Kanemaru-san) pipes up: "A-shu-ree-sensei (Ashley teacher)!"

The doctor looks at me and says deadpan: "Congratulations. But so what?"

"Uh.... It was a different type of sex?" I begin, noticing that the Doc and I were not alone in our huddle.

The doctor then places a cigarette in his mouth (they always seem freshly lit) joins his two hands together with the index fingers touching and the thumbs touching each other. He then squishes his fingers closer together to create a more narrow opening.

The doctor then somehow manages to stick his tongue out while keeping the cigarette in his mouth and pretends to lick the opening made by his hands. What a cunning linguist.

Palm down, I waver my right hand up and down and side to side hoping he knows that means sort of yes and sort of no.

I have no idea how to pantomime what I want to describe (told you I was lousy), so I grab a pen and a paper and I draw this:


An asterisk.

One... two... "Oh... Wakata! (I get it!)," says the doctor! "Komon (anus)."

And here's where my pantomime skills come out to play, as I stick my tongue out and begin to flick it up and down.

To Hanazaki-san and Kanamearu-san's credit... after they stopped laughing and helped the doctor up off the floor, they never ever mentioned this day again. At least not to me.

Doctor Suzuki... he pointed at the three wax sachets he had given me previously and said "Same medicine will help you."

Crap!!!! I had embarrassed myself for nothing.

Still... before I left, Doctor Suzuki had the last word: "Your girlfriend is pretty, but please be careful Andrew-sensei."

Hunh... a compliment and a warning... which means more to me?

And... yet... the final indignity arrived as I tried to leave the hospital and forgot to remove the hospital slippers... half my damn foot stuck out of those things... leaving that half to soak up the chill from the cold stone floor of the hospital.

Anyhow... whatever was in those generic purple powder packs... it worked... I had to dump it in water, stir it around and chug it back. It tasted horrible, but the squirts were gone in three days...

I only ever got sick one more time in Japan (same type of action from my butt) in year three... that horrible time when Kristine (a super sexy, cute AET I met on my very first day in Japan) came over - traveling some 500 kilometers to see me and the local sights... and not only did she have to go out and get medicine for me (Thanks, my Special K), but I blew the best chance I had of sleeping with her.

I'm still pissed off about that...

By the by... I'm pretty sure you are not allowed to smoke in a Japanese hospital anymore...

Andrew Joseph
PS: I am always blown away when I realize that some 21 years after leaving Japan that I still remember some of the simple words and phrases I learned.


  1. Hahaha this post was too funny. To be a foreign man in Japan! I hope being an American women in Japan will warrant some funny tales to bring back home. -Sarah

    1. Of course there will be funny tales! If you have a good sense of humor - it is appreciated by everyone. On the ride to my town... one boss who spoke zero English (Kanemaru-san) used a dictionary to tell me a joke one word at a time. It was a lousy joke (from what I can remember) BUT, I appreciated the effort and laughed my head off.
      Sarah... please keep in mind that everyone's experience varies... and I was really lucky. My bud, Matthew, too. But I also think you make your own luck.
      Thanks for reading... and note that I responded back to the "dating" story message you left.