Health Check

Japanese companies are obliged to provide their employees with an annual health check, and clinics exist which do nothing else but provide that service. Several of my American colleagues refused to go, fearing that they’d be sent home if anything was found to be wrong with them (although why they think a stay in a Japanese hospital would be preferable is beyond me). Arguments to reassure them (all companies must offer the service, not just language schools; it’s against the law to fire someone for that reason, even in Japan; no one at the company gives a damn whether you go or not, which is not usually the case with deportation conspiracies; it’s free) were in vain. Having grown up in a country where free health care is not daily equated to life under Mao, I’m a bit more accepting. Besides, I’m going to be 44 next week – I need all the help I can get.

Nishinakajima-Minamigata Station is only really notable for its long name. Last Monday, slightly hungover from the Year-End Party I’d been to the night before, and hungry because I couldn’t eat for 12 hours before the check-up (not even a Bufferin, hence the headache), I walked up and down the street a few times, trying to remember the building I’d been to four years before. I had forgotten to bring the address and map (in Osaka, thanks to the haphazard layout of the streets, both are generally required). Eventually, a sign on a nearby shop or an auspiciously-placed tree jogged some dim memory, and I walked into a large, empty lobby and scanned the tenant list for anything resembling the kanji for ‘health’ or ‘insurance’. The third floor looked promising, so up I went.

Luckily, it was the right place : the private health-check clinic. I handed the nurse my file, which I’d been sent earlier, and a stool sample (which I had collected myself the day before with what looked like a mascara brush and placed – brush and all – in a test tube, which I sealed and put in a dark green ziplock bag. The instruction sheet, by the way, featured a cheerful, anthropomorphic turd). In return, the nurse handed me a pair of pajamas and sent me to the locker room to change.

The pajamas were too small. When I walked back out, the nurse looked alarmed and handed me a (much) larger pair. I’m so used to there not being anything larger here that it never occurred to me to ask. They were so big that I got to roll up my cuffs for the first time in a while. I was then handed a cup and sent to the men’s room (the cup had a line inside to show you exactly how much to, er, produce). Handing in my contribution, I was then sent to the chest X-ray room (it still bothers me when the technician high-tails it out before taking the photo), and then sent to sit for a while. The other men waiting their turn were not known to me – mostly office workers in their thirties who all looked as though they were dying for a smoke.

In the course of the hour I had my eyes, hearing, and blood pressure checked (all very good), a blood sample taken (I’ll get the analysis in January), my height (176.6 cm) and weight measured (up 8 kg since 2002: not good at all, and I feel it). And of course the added treat of vanilla-flavoured barium with a laxative chaser (which effectively put an end to any plans I might have had that afternoon…). The stomach-checker guy had to continually come out of his Cone of Silence and arrange me the right way on the tilted X-ray table (while I manfully gripped the sidebars, hoping not to fall on my head). I couldn’t understand his muffled and muttered “left, please,” and “right, please,” and “lift your leg, please” through the room’s aged intercom. The language school accounts must be the highlight of his year.

Later, after flipping through a magazine (Sports Graphic NUMBER) for a while, I was called by the aged sensei who probably owns the place into a little room, behind curtains (not unlike a makeshift Confessional). He did the final chest and back check, with the stethescope, and took out the little survey I’d filled out (I’ll bet only Japan has surveys which ask how many hours one way your daily commute is), noted my shoulder complaints, tired eyes, and told me not to use my computer so much without taking a break. I think he told me the same thing four years ago, but I can’t really blame him for that.

I dressed and left. Like every time, I left there wondering whether the tests would ever turn up anything seriously wrong with me. Were they even intended to? I don’t think the system has changed since the war ended (actually, unless you go to a teaching hospital, going to the doctor in Japan always vaguely feels like you’re stepping into the past). To be fair, I know what my main problem is (8 kilos! Jeez!), and seeing it written on an official form might shame me into doing something about it. After Christmas. In Canada. With turkey. And stuffing. And gravy. And so on.

What was I saying?

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