My Japanese AIDS Test

I went to see my Japanese doctor last week, because I decided I had AIDS.  This happens to me all the time, so it’s really no big deal.  The problem is that I recently moved, so now going to talk to the man in the white coat means I have to ride the train for an hour.  So inconvenient, really, all that medical stuff.

Aside from its distance from the hospital, I love my new place.  The only thing is, it’s small.  I mean like Wizard of Oz small. Like living in the Lunar Module kind of small.  But on the plus side, it’s got everything necessary to sustain life, including a TV, microwave, and even a bathroom.  Now, you might disagree, but I think getting a beer out of the fridge, nuking up a plate of edamame, and using the toilet all without leaving one’s futon is the very definition of convenience.  It even has a teeny sink and a toaster the size of an Easy-Bake oven, like in case I need to make a batch of tiny cookies.  You can never be too prepared.

The Annual Migration

Anyway, I move about once a year, in a vain attempt to improve my living situation in Japan.  It’s all about the trade-offs.  My last apartment had a nice big window, but a view of a brick wall.   The place before that was a room in a beautiful wooden house, which was great until winter, when the wind came blasting through and the place became an igloo.  For three months, I wore a stocking cap and slept in a parka.  That really messes up your hair, let me tell you.

But the real reason I like my new place is that it’s not steeped in perpetual darkness like a lot of Japanese apartments.  I mean, it’s bright like 24-7.  I’m way up on the seventh floor, where the sun comes in in the mornings, and the neon glow comes in at night.  I really gotta get some curtains.  Anyway, when I look out my window, I can even see a bit of greenery, which is refreshing, since sometimes Japan feels like it’s molded out of pure concrete.  You know, there’s not a lot of nature, unless you live in some deluxe tower like Bruce Wayne or something with a rooftop garden, or maybe you’re homeless and live in the bushes down by the river.  Anyway, my eyesight is really spectacular, so way off in the distance, just before the horizon drops below the curvature of the earth, I can see a small tree.  It’s a pretty sweet view.  One of my friends came by and she was like, That’s not a tree.  It’s the billboard for a novelty car air freshener.  But I said, You’re nuts, and you wear glasses anyway.  It’s definitely a tree.  Silly bitch.

Symptoms of HIV?  Freaking Everything

But where was I?  Oh yeah, so I went to the doctor about my AIDS.  The dude’s always smiling.  I have no idea why.  Probably he’s on drugs.  But anyway I wasn’t, smiling that is, because I know a couple people who died from the stuff, and even though I try to act all casual, it actually scares me to death.  Dying is something I try to avoid, since it’s just too dramatic.  But since I’ve had a dry cough for a full month now, I knew I had the HIV, and I just resigned myself to it.  I looked it up online, and sure enough, right there on WebMD, was all I needed to know.  To be fair, this is about the tenth time I’ve had AIDS.  You name a symptom, I’ve had it.  Rash?  I got AIDS.  Night sweats?  That’s AIDS for sure.  Athlete’s foot?  No doubt.

When I finally got to the station for the hospital, it was raining, so I had to go to Lawson and buy a cheap plastic umbrella.  And even still my pants were soaked below the knee by the time I walked into the waiting room.  But compared to the mass of the people huddled there, I looked like a prince.  People were in wheelchairs with IVs hanging out of their arms and an old lady was laying across three chairs moaning and a girl was crumpled on the floor coughing out half a lung.  Jeez, there are some sick people in hospitals, for real.

Going to the Doctor in Japan

I love going to the doctor here.  You get to speak a ton of Japanese, and because of the national health insurance, it’s almost cheaper than a language class.  The first thing they do is give you a form to fill out with all your information, and answer questions about your health.  I’ve learned a ton of medical terminology this way.  There are boxes to mark for nausea, dizziness, fever, all kinds of good stuff.  I check them all.  You can never be too careful.

The thing about doctors is, they’re smart.  And they know they’re smart, so they don’t have to try to impress you by speaking English.  Not like when I go to eat oden at that old wooden cart under the railroad tracks and the homeless guy dishing out fish cakes from month-old broth has to try out his English.  The dude sleeps in a cardboard box by the river and only comes out at night to serve up terrifying things floating in a pot from the Meiji era, but he’s gonna make sure I know that he knows how to say “egg” in English.  Doctors aren’t like that.

The first thing doctors say is “Japanese daijyoubu?”  And as soon as I’m like “daijyoubu,” we’re good to go.  I get my free language class.  I get to tell him all about my cough, and this time I had a rash, and my athlete’s foot, and he has to listen and ask thoughtful questions.  It’s great.  Then he looks in my ears and mouth and listens to my heart.  But the best part is all the tests.

How to Fail a Japanese Health Exam

Japanese people love measuring stuff.  Anything they can put a number to, they’re on that.  Height, weight, blood, urine, x-rays, you name it, they want to poke and prod you for it.  Now, you wouldn’t think “pee in this cup” would be something you’d want to hear, but when it’s in Japanese, suddenly it’s something I can’t wait to do.  I don’t know why, but probably because I had a ton of coffee.  Or maybe it’s just me.

The only thing that stumped me was the x-ray part.  They made me stand in front of this screen with my arms over my head and then some Japanese guy in a control room mumbled something through a microphone that I couldn’t quite make out.  But I caught the word “right.”  So I turned to the right.  And he’s like, No, turn right.  So I was like okaaay . . . and slowly turned right again.  And he’s like, No, the other right.  And I said, Where the hell’s that?  You want me to turn left?  And he’s like, No, right.  So I turned right.  And he’s like, No, Right!

Now, I know right and left.  I’ll admit there’s a lot of stuff I’m not great with–haiiro (gray) and chairo (brown)–I gave up trying to keep those two straight years ago.  As colors, they both suck anyway, so whatever.  But I’ve got right and left down rock solid.  All I can think is that maybe he means his right, or maybe he wants to see my right side so I should turn left.  Or something.  So I turned left.  And he’s like “Good.  Now turn right again.”  So I turned left once more.  With my arms up, it felt like the hokey-pokey.  Eventually, he seemed happy and we got a bunch of nice pictures, so I went back to see the doctor.

The doctor had two PC screens, and showed me a bunch of numbers and pictures of my lungs and explained all about cholesterol and triglycerides in Japanese and I was like, Hmm, I see, do tell me more.  Then we got into a pretty deep discussion about the role of potassium in the body and I felt like I was really getting my money’s worth from this language lesson.  So finally, I asked him about my AIDS.

Diagnosis:  Shut up and Eat your Peas

He looked at the screens and said casually, Oh, that’s negative.  And I was like, Negative, ah, jeez, that’s bad right?  And he’s like, No, negative is good.  I just looked at him blankly and tried to process that.  I said, So negative is the new positive?  You should really go talk to the guy in the x-ray room.   Anyway, he continued, You’re fine, but you ought to watch your diet.  Do you eat a lot of salty food?  And I said, Hell yeah, ever since this latest bout of AIDS I’ve been going every other day to eat oden at this old wooden cart.  He gave me that disapproving look that old Japanese people are so good at and said, You really out to cut back on that.  Try to eat more fresh vegetables and legumes.  I decided then and there I wouldn’t tell him about my weekend regimen consisting entirely of potato chips and malt liquor.  Doctors can’t handle that kind of stuff.

Anyway, even though I no longer had the HIV, I still had a pretty bad cough, so I figured I’d have to go with plan B—other good illnesses to have.  I started going down the list with him:  lung cancer, pneumonia, whooping cough . . . I really have a great medical vocabulary.  He stared at his desk for a minute and thought.  “When did this begin?” he asked.

“About a month ago,” I said.

“Anything changed in the last month?”

“No . . .” I lied.

“New job,” he continued, “or going somewhere new, or doing something new?”

“Well,” I said reluctantly, “I did move to a new apartment.”

“Ah, that’s probably it.  Have you cleaned it yet?”

“Perish the thought,” I said.

Living with the Results

I don’t see what good it does to have all that fancy hospital equipment if all you can come up with is, You’re allergic to your apartment.  But that and a handshake was all I got, so I thanked him and went back to the waiting room.  A nurse gave me a prescription for some cough syrup and led me to the checkout counter, where a smiling young cashier handed me what looked like a green ATM card, and pointed to a machine behind me.  “Put in the card.  Put in money,” he said in Japanese.  Easy as pie.  The staff there really are very nice.

Sure enough, it turned out to be some sort of reverse ATM machine.  I put in the green card and the screen told me to stuff in a hundred and thirty bucks.

I did a quick mental calculation.  That’s about a month’s worth of potato chips and malt liquor.   But I figured it was worth it, since it included two hours of Japanese lessons and cured my AIDS.  I inserted a bunch of yen and out came a receipt.  When I walked outside it had stopped raining and I realized my pants had dried, so I just left the umbrella at the hospital and rode the train home.  In the end, I got a diagnosis of “Clean your effing apartment.”  It’s pretty grim news, but I’m coming to terms with it.  Thank God I live in a tiny space capsule, and with a rag on a stick can clean the whole place in about 10 minutes.  Gotta love Japan.


21 Replies to “My Japanese AIDS Test”

  1. What a hilarious post!!!
    Thanks for that! 😀

    Unfortunately I have to go to the hospital very often, so I have a lot of experience with them and the docs.
    Actually some of them tried to use their English on me (which is strange as English is not my native language and they knew! ..).

    Unlike you I actually find the Japanese health system extremely expensive compared to what I’m used to back home.

    I’m not sure if there are any good doctors out there. Have yet to find one. My experience is similar to yours.
    No matter what you have and no matter how many examinations you go through. In the end they’ll always give you a pretty standard medicine and a “Odaijini” and that’s it.

    About the apartments:
    I’ve lived in a small shoebox for 4 years. Apart from the size, it was quite good.
    I recently moved. Now I have a big and bright apartment, but only problems with it.
    When I moved in I found a gargabe cave. The previous person hasn’t cleaned up at all. Never saw a place as dirty as this before.
    And I started to become allergic, even after cleaning all the rooms like WOAH (took over 2 weeks!).
    My biggest problem are the pests, though.
    I mean we all get the usual crap such as roaches and stuff, but my apartment is invaded by bats!
    Yes, bats! They come INSIDE at night, drop their poo everywhere and flap around like crazy as they wanna get out again.
    Have had many sleepless nights because of that.

    Maybe it’s time for a hospital visit to tell the doc my story 😉

    1. Bats? Holy crud! You don’t need a doctor; you need a witch doctor!

      Seriously, I hope you can get that worked out, because it sounds like it would be a nice place if you could just de-vermin-ize it. Japan certainly has its share of horrible critters.

    1. Well, if you plan on getting the HIV often you should really enquire at the hospital for a Frequent Hypochondria Card. If I go one more time, I get a free blood test and a foot-long sub. Man, am I looking forward to that.

  2. Very funny tale! I enjoyed reading about the left and right sides. Next time think about moving forward and back and turning around! That should be an interesting XRay.

    1. Yeah, I’m pretty sure they just give me random crazy instructions to see if I’ll actually do them. I always feel like I’m in an episode of Japanese Candid Camera.

      1. If you live in Tokyo, I would suggest you take a look at this testing center. It’s free and anonymous:

        If that doesn’t work with your schedule or location, I would suggest searching for clinics in your area that offer English. (Forgive me for assuming that if you spoke and wrote Japanese well enough to deal with a Japanese hospital, you’d simply search for one of those, as they’re numerous.) Any clinic can either perform the test or refer you to a place that will. They may not be free, but it may be worth spending a few yen for the peace of mind.

  3. Going to the doctor in Japan is awesome, just like you have documented! The best part is they are doctors so they know everything. Just like Dentists who take 3 visits to put in a filling (wtf).

    “You wear glasses? Take these low level herbal things I call medicinizle! You’ll be cured of bad vision and it’ll magically cure Ken’s imaginary aids from a distance! Yes! And stop taking showers, take baths like normal people.” Next visit “You didn’t take them at the exactly the same time of day. Your bath was not long enough. Eat more junk that cures nothing because I’m a doctor. Now go die.”

    When I was in my first apartment downtown I was randomly getting really sick and thought I was going to die. Stuff I said made no sense, I’d fall asleep thinking it’s the end of my life. I wake up 3 hours later. I call it the “quick Jesus” because it was hours instead of days. I went to the doctor probably 3 times, 2 different doctors. Last one said “Yep, it’s your dog. Get rid of your cute dog… the only living creature in Japan that understands your hip hop English.” So I got rid of her. It was sad.

    The next day had a Jesus moment again. So I cleaned the apartment like a lunatic over the next 3 days multiple time until the quick Jesus hit again on day 4. I said screw this! So I looked up a doctor who’s not Japanese. He’s like “Dude. You’ve been taking medicine from Japanese doctors? The country where Tylenol is prescription only? I bet 100% you’re allergic to dust. Take this (Flonase) Flixonase … Western (aka ‘regular’) strength … and go get an allergy test. Give it three days and you’ll be fine”

    So I take the nasal spray, within 24 hours I felt awesome! A few days later cured! I had an allergy test and got tested for everything on the menu. The only thing I’m allergic to is dust and dust mites. I was pretty upset and thought about billing the dog hating Japanese doctor and billing him for my loss. At least now I know I’m not going to fall asleep and die… maybe.

    1. So wait, you couldn’t get your hip hop dog back? Dude, that’s whack. That breed is totally hard to find, especially in this crazy country.

      Seriously, the “quick Jesus” story is hilarious. I wish I’d thought of “quick Jesus.” Damn you, Japan it UP! Glad you got cured though. Good call going to a Western doctor. It’s like Japanese doctors are practicing medicine as a hobby. If you’re breathing, you’re fine, and they just give you some mystery powder to drink. I guess if you’ve got faith, maybe it’ll cure you. You just gotta belieeeeve.

  4. Hi Ken-san,

    One day, I coincidentally stumbled upon your page. I ended up reading a few articles a day. I really enjoy your writing. Thank you so much for sharing stories of your life in Japan!

    My questions about AIDS in Japan: Is it a widely discussed topic with treatments/tests readily available and easily accessible? Is it extremely offensive to recommend a Japanese man go get tested for AIDS/HIV? Japanese men, do they care a lot about how friends and other people think about them?

    He was a friend. The recommendation was for his own safety and the safety of everyone else. It wasn’t implied he’s “dirty”, “have the disease”, or “sleeping around every night” Recommendation was out of good intention and I genuinely care about him. However, it wasn’t perceived positively and I lost a friend.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that. You didn’t say or do anything wrong.

      I think you might be discounting a couple of factors. These are generalizations, yet important to note. The first is that Japanese folks, by and large, are unaccustomed to criticism. Or stated more accurately, they incessantly criticize each other, and harshly. What they’re unaccustomed to is anyone actually trying to give them some advice that might be helpful (what’s sometimes termed “constructive criticism”). The thinking is, Why would anyone do that? It’s very un-Japanese.

      The Japanese way of thinking is: Coach/Mother/Sensei knows best, so shut up and follow instructions. It’s the relationship between a drill sergeant and the platoon. The drill sergeant doesn’t say, “Hey, uh, ya know, I noticed your boots could, like, maybe use a shine–whadda ya think? No? Okay, sorry for bothering you.” Instead, they give orders, and underlings follow them.

      My experience is that making subtle suggestions to Japanese people doesn’t work very well. It’s better to either say nothing, or, if you have a superior social position, give an order: “Get an AIDS test.” It’s one or the other, and usually, Japanese people say nothing.

      Which leads to the second point: You asked, “Is it a widely discussed topic?” Even without knowing what “it” is, I can definitively answer “Uh, no.” Japanese people love to avoid discussing things of importance. They’re terrified of confrontation. In case you didn’t catch why, please refer to point #1. So an overwhelming number of conversations are about the weather/how delicious this food is/oh, you’re from another country—let’s talk about that.

      Bottom line is: It wasn’t you, and it wasn’t about AIDS. It’s about how Japanese people are raised, and the culture in which they live. I live.

      As a bonus point, I’ll add the observation that Japanese people can be quick to break off relations—ghosting—for no significant reason. They just get tired of dealing with you. Please don’t take it personally.

      1. Thank you Ken-san, for taking the time to reply to my post.

        What I meant by “is it a widely discussed topic?” is that I want to know if the topic of AIDS, sexual diseases and preventions are openly discuss/taught at school in Japan like we do here in the States? Are there public commercials, ads, billboards that encourage getting AIDS test for the wellbeing of society? Are testing facility easily accessible? Because, my friend believe condom protects you from everything…

        I didn’t discuss the AIDS topic with my friend in person. I send a message. And, without expressing his opinion or feeling, he blocked me…so much for a 6 years friendship.

        You said “Japanese people can be quick to break off relations–ghosting–for no significant reason. They just get tired of dealing with you.” So when it’s over, it’s over? it’s over for the rest of this lifetime? There’s no way to reconcile? I know Japanese people don’t like confrontation. Sometime, I wonder what the reaction will be if I show up at the door uninvited and demand that we talk things out. And shake hands over a glass of beer

        1. Please don’t show up at his door–that’s just stalking. If you want to, mail him a letter. Of course, I have no idea about your relationship, but if somebody blocks your messages, it’s a pretty strong indicator they don’t want you to contact them any more.

          Japan doesn’t have much in the way of public awareness about STD’s. You might see a poster in a doctor’s office, but you’re more likely to see information about stomach cancer, eating too much salt, or getting fat. I’m sure they teach it in schools, but there’s not much in the way of newspaper or TV coverage. Condom usage isn’t nearly as common as it is in the West, and “the pill” is almost unheard of. Abortion is the usual method of birth control.

          But again, I don’t think this had much to do with the particular topic you discussed. It’s been my experience in Japan that if you become more trouble than you’re worth, people will just ghost you. I’ve always felt that relationships here have a very transactional quality to them.

  5. I un-friend him before from social media, for a different reason. So I guess it is only fair that he block me this time. Our relationship is not at all transactional…because at one point, he waited 1 hour at bus stop for me. Those were the good old times. It’s only recently that our friendship blossom into something more. And then things get complicated to the point of blocking and ghosting. Actually, it seems my friend has been ghosting himself from everyone for awhile. The trouble came from both sides, not just me. I feel it has a lot to do with communication, the language, misunderstanding, and cultural differences. And, it doesn’t help that I’m a personable person who loves to express feelings without consideration for boundaries. I learn that Japanese people are uncomfortable about that.

    I looked up the definition of “stalker.” From my research, a “stalker” is someone who sneakily follows a person on daily basis with means to threaten and causing harm. The behavior is sickening. That is not love. If the intention is to make things right by talking it out face-to-face, then how is it stalking? But, I will keep your advice in mind.
    Sometime, I don’t understand why some men can say such nasty word to the women. You don’t hear men say that when they want to get in bed with the women. I find it amusing that men are not afraid of getting AIDS or dying from AIDS as result of random 1-night stands with women they never knew…but, yet men are afraid of being “stalked.”

    The question about discussing AIDS in classroom and public awareness of STDs in Japan is for my own understanding. I was appalled when the friend said “condom protects you from everything.” Like, he is certain of it. I was under the impression perhaps school in Japan don’t discuss how STDs/AIDS are transmitted, or maybe it’s a taboo to talk about it. And, I wasn’t sure if it is an offensive thing to recommend getting AIDS test to a Japanese man. Now, I have better understanding. Thank you!

    My first impression of Japan was: EVERYONE is so KIND! So helpful, so nice, so genuine, so honest, and so responsible. No Japanese will ever do irresponsible things that can cause harm to others (i.e. unprotected sex, not getting bi-annual AIDS test and passing sexual diseases to others) . Japan to me is like a perfect world free from anything malicious and wrongdoings. It is disheartening to hear abortion is the usual method of birth control. Your customer-oriented article also explains a lot about Japanese niceness.

  6. Well, whatever creeping crud I’ve got (probably fukubikuen/sinuitus again) I laughed so hard I am sure to be cured — or, find out tomorrow morning that I’ve ruptured my spleen. Whatever, it’s cheaper than another prescription.

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