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Being Admitted to a Japanese Hospital

The black and white picture of my leg showed no splinters in the bone, but there was a small black pocket where white ligament should have been. Momentarily the doctor arrived, a young, disheveled man with heavy sideburns, tennis shoes, and a slight, worried smile. As he entered the room, the nurses took two steps back, bowed deeply, and asked for his gracious protection. Turning toward me, he began his diagnosis in Japanese. But after realizing I was having difficulty understanding his technical language, he took a deep breath and started again, this time in English.
“Ligament. Rupture. Cast… shall we?”
He breathed an audible sigh of relief and gestured for the nurses to prepare the plaster.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted, moving back into Japanese, “can’t we discuss this a little more?”
Stunned, he sank back into a chair.
What followed was a rather arduous conversation as he repeated the same finding. “Ligament. Rupture. Cast… understand?” I had the uneasy feeling that he knew about six words of English and was adjusting his diagnosis to fit his vocabulary. “You have cancer; we must amputate; have a nice day.” Soon he stopped talking altogether, pulled on his plastic gloves, and declared, “Let’s go.”

Learning to Bow, Bruce Feiler

1. Before you go, you need to pack a bag. Obviously you’ll need clothes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, a few towels, and some snacks. But what you may not realize is you should also bring a fork, chopsticks, indoor slippers, and a cup for tea.

2. Three to four times a day nurses will come by your bed and take your temperature, blood pressure, and measure your pulse. Unlike in the US, Japanese thermometers are used under the armpit.

3. This I cannot stress enough – do not ask for pain medication unless your Japanese is good enough to describe the method of administration. Most hospital meditations are suppositories. You can receive injections, but only if you ask.

4. If you do go into surgery or have some operation, a nurse will come by to collect any money or valuables you might have, to be stored at the nurses station.

5. I can’t even say this… although it also happened to me, I’ll let Mr. Feiler provide the words:

…she reached a final question, which I could not understand.
“Could you repeat that,” I said.
Off she went again. “Something, something, yesterday. Whatsit, whatsit, how many times?” Again, a blank stare from me. Not to be denied, she looked around the room, pulled the curtain closed, and carefully enunciated the word “TO-I-LE-TO,” pointing to her rear end for clarification.
“Ah, I got it,” I announced. “Twice.”
Then the nurse stripped back the covers again and pointed to my crotch. “Weeelll…?”
Now more fully awake and concerned that she had plans to probe me again with her singing thermometer, I answered quickly, “The same.”

In retrospect, the nurse must have been asking me how many times I had made honorable waste.

6. Fight to be discharged. Although the doctor and nurse will usually defer to you, you really have to make the case that you are capable of taking care of yourself once released. Have friends stop by to show you have support. If you still need treatment, ask if you can be a gairai (外来, outpatient).

Here’s a very useful page I wish I’d known about beforehand. It goes over the medical procedures and Japanese social and labor insurance, and the creators provide a medical consultation line in English:

AMDA International Medical Information Center