I have for all my years working here in Tokyo avoided the company health check. I have always been a bit of a hypochondriac, so although a free comprehensive health workup is shiny to my magpie eyes, the thought of my results being known to anyone outside the doctor’s office is an abhorrent prospect. Where the results go is not entirely clear, something about a “person in charge of company health.” I place too much value on my own privacy to allow for any sliver of a lack of patient-doctor confidentiality. What the fuck, Japan. I don’t know where this comes from, but it’s not a socialized medicine thing: see other countries with similar systems. There is not only the bigger issue of whose hands your results could float into, but the lack of privacy starts from the office visit itself.
I will begin with the caveat that I’ve been to a few clinics (the breast clinic in Aoyama being my favourite all around) where things are modern, nice and neat. For the most part, however, the places I have gone don’t leave a lot to the imagination. From having to explain what ails you to the receptionist in front of the whole waiting room, to the nurse discussing the prescribed medications with you in front of the whole waiting room, to the curtain or flimsy divider that allows others to hear your consult with the doctor. I’ve grown fairly accustomed to it now, although that is more likely because I haven’t (thank god) had anything too graphic to discuss (see: me puking in an echo chamber of a bathroom off the waiting room), not because I am suddenly down with strangers hearing all my biz. I realize I have privileged, Western expectations when it comes to medicine, but there you have it.
So what has changed, you ask. I must have been to a company health check if I am writing you this postcard. Last summer one of my favourite coworkers died very suddenly and I spent the following months wondering if the same thing was going to happen to me. I also discovered what an anxiety attack was like. Cue the company health check.
As I write this, I’ve gone through two annual checks now. Companies pick and choose the full menu that employees are subjected to and while I am thankful to not have had my stomach filled with barium, I am less than thrilled that lady part checks are not included, because unless you say you are exhibiting symptoms, it can be expensive to have your cervix scraped and your ta-tas smooshed around. Even with universal insurance, you have to pay 30% out of pocket. So, instead of covering some really useful tests, the Kaisha chooses some useful ones and then some I’ve never heard of that are in the WTF-are-you-testing-for-this category. I won’t go into all the different implications of this kind of annual testing in Japan; I am not knowledgeable enough and I doubt I can articulate what I do know. It can be very good but also not so good for hypochondriacs (I never knew I should be worried about this!).
This year, I went to the clinic on the last day of the exam period, so I was lucky enough to be surrounded by 20 or so of my not-so-closest Japanese colleagues. There I was, perched on a chair thigh-to-thigh with two male Professionals, pretending we don’t know each other. For the purposes of the Kaisha’s health check menu, we are not required to wear one of those fabulous cotton gowns, but some of the Professionals got to catch a glimpse of me in a hot little beige number as I moved rooms for a chest x-ray in full view. It’s bad enough being put through the health check mill with your coworkers under florescent lighting, but add to that the awkwardness of being the only whitie, known to some only by name and seen for the first time on your way to giving a urine sample.
Speaking of which, the urine sample takes the award as the most egregious manifestation of the lack of privacy. To say nothing of the fact that I watched the nurse hand empty PAPER cups to patients that her fingers had been inside (the cup, not the person), after filling to the line, I placed my cup in the two-door cupboard to be secreted away by a nurse only to see the cupboard was full. Full of five other OPEN PAPER cups of urine the names on some of which were entirely visible to me. Well at least I know what Tanaka-san’s piss looks like for the next time he asks me to do work for him!!! Let’s just pause here to ponder the cray-fuckedness of this.
I suppose I should look at this as some kind of group-building exercise. After all, so much of society is group-focused, why not all hold hands, do a health check together, and share the results later! While grateful for (70%) universal health care and a company that pays for my prodding, the exercise of going through the annual exam in front of coworkers who may or may not be able to hear what is being said behind the closed door and may or may not have seen my fucking urine, will not be one of my most cherished memories.
What, you have to piss in paper cups? Do they have lids? That’s barbaric. I find the plastic containers with lids bad enough.
Yes, lidless paper cups. Which have been contaminated by the nurse’s fingers.
I avoided my health check too. In my defense, it seemed like it might have been not compulsory (I got a letter from I don’t even know where, asking, I don’t even know what and I got a colleague to read it for me) but I had a… not an anxiety attack, but a highly stressed feeling regarding all these things and not even being able to talk to anyone.
anyway, interesting to read your experience.
Mine isn’t compulsory either. When I was a student here, I tended to try to find doctors who spoke English, but they usually didn’t take health insurance and were horrendously expensive. Now I go wherever and I’ve found both good and not so good…there is a medical help line for foreigners you can call, tell them what you need and they will call you back with the name of a clinic that fits the conditions you give them (e.g., English speaking, accepts insurance, etc.). The name eludes me but I’m sure google could pull it up.
Tokyo Medical Information Service +81 (0)3 5285 8181
my friend said she found it fascinating (hers was compulsary) as she had never been tested for TB before.
and thanks! I have no idea who sent my invitation for a medical, but after checking that I probably didn’t have to go I got rid of it ^_^
I’ll give you a health check. No charge.
You’re lucky they didn’t do the occult blood test for bowel cancer.
Sounds like you have a story…!? Were paper cups involved?
ahhh yes. I am a hypochondriac too and I also just had my annual company health check, fortunately alone – no coworkers. I am still so surprised an EKG is involved and not so thrilled about the TB chest X-ray. I don’t need radiation and I don’t have TB!!
(By the way, I’m the one who wanted to talk to you about applying to work in Tokyo (not teaching). We didn’t end up getting in touch, but I did get a job offer and I’ve been working here since April. Yay! Also, I have thought of your entries as I adjust to having to use the Otohime when my coworkers are in the bathroom too – it’s annoying. There’s also only two stalls for about 35 women, the custom is to knock on the door to the whole bathroom before opening it, and the post-lunch teeth brushing fest can be a major traffic jam.)
Re: worrying because someone you know died suddenly. I have been struggling with that too recently and here is what helped me. I realized that while you may hear about horror stories that happen to other people, the greatest predictor of your health is your genes and your diet/lifestyle. I am guessing you were not related to this coworker, and your diet and exercise levels were probably not the same either. Instead, look to your family. How is your parents’ health? Grandparents? How long have your ancestors generally lived? THAT is what will predict what could happen to you – not someone else. And if you can eat healthier or exercise more, that’s good too. But don’t worry so much about the rare bad things that happen to others if your genetics and lifestyle are fairly sound. This is what I’m trying to do whenever those panicky feelings creep up on me too. It’s hard… but thinking of it this way is really helping.
Reminds me of the time I had to get my annual physical while living in Japan. I did okay until we got to the xray. One nurse administering it turned into a nurse and a doctor and then almost every medical professional and ojisan on the entire floor coming to gawk at the nipple piercings I have showing up in clear and present danger on the screen. They wanted me to take them out or at the very least redo the xray. Eff that ess.
Welcome back! Thought you had disappeared for good. Glad to see your return.
I haven’t had to do one of those yet, but I’m sure I will someday. Just something else to add to the Only in Japan list!
I’ve gotten postcards for national health exams for the past few years (after you turn 40 I think you get certain tests for free or very cheap). I haven’t gone yet for one, but your article has me thinking I really should make an effort to get everything checked out and take advantage of the low price or free medical checks. Thanks for posting such an interesting article!
Erinn from KA International Mothers in Japan
RIP Sound Princess
What happened to her?
Me too, one of my co-workers also died recently. Had a heart attack during kendo practice, so that’s one more reason not to do martial arts.
Yeah, I don’t know what’s up with Japanese medical professionals. The culture is generally so private, and then to have your health information (not to mention your body) exposed in front of a roomful of people, it’s just wrong. I’m also not crazy about the fact that my kaisha makes me get x-rays every year. Nope, no cancer yet. Better blast him with some more rays and see what happens next year.
What a country, Japan, really.
Just wondering where you went? I used to read Green-Eyed Geisha all the time
Did you move to Canada? Get married to beau-san? Have cute chibi-Chan? I stumbled across your blog and really enjoyed it! Thank you for all the insights into the Japanese culture.