17. Medical Yokohama
by Pencil Louis
Vince had vowed never to go to a doctor in Japan. He had a
healthy distrust of the medical profession in any country
and resented the hours he had spent in waiting rooms. It
seemed that professionalism for doctors and specialists was
measured in the amount of time they kept you sitting in
spiritless rooms with out-of-date magazines.
Of course, if you are going to vow not to go to a doctor,
you should first vow not to get to sick, and this is not the
sort of promise you should ever make to yourself in Tokyo.
Half the city suffers from a perpetual influenza. Just
travelling to and from work will cure one's low blood
pressure. And if you think that walking up and down
thousands of stairs in a day is good exercise, you soon
discover that it also gives you arthritis in the knees and
ankles. In spring time, the cedar pollen has everyone with
swollen eyes, sneezing and wearing white masks.
One of the most prevalent problems, especially in summer, is
the range of skin ailments that afflict the average resident
of the larger Tokyo area. It was one of these that smote
Vince. He had become infected with a tinea fungus while
working in a tin mine as a student, but had always kept it
under control via a whole host of home remedies. After two
years in Japan, none of these remedies seemed to work any
more and it was in the summer of 1992 that he developed a
heat rash that turned into some sort of eczema. He, of
course, ignored it for as long as possible, but his ankles
became swollen and that also happened to be the week in
which he carried the omikoshi and they got stomped by fifty
other pairs of tabi. It also turned out to be stand on or
kick Vince's feet week and he had decided that not all of
this pedal injury was accidental.
After three days, Connie felt that Nozomi who was after all
a trained nurse could help. She came over and tut-tutted
over the feet washing them with disinfectant. This stung
like hell, but Vince's own father had always advocated detol
washing for any external injury and so he was prepared to
bend to such a treatment if only out of habit. Vince's feet
had other ideas. They had suffered 34 years of antiseptics
and enough was enough. They rebelled. Within a day, they had
swollen to such proportions that the skin had broken into
little rivulets that wept blood. On the day Vince finally
agreed to go to the doctor, he couldn't stand up without
assistance. For the first time since he got to Japan, he
would have preferred to have been sleeping in a western
style bed instead of a futon, just because it would have
been easier to get out of one. He could scarcely walk
although he certainly tried to walk as much as possible.
Anticipating his first visit to a Japanese doctor,
amputation wasn't out of the question.
When Vince visited Dr. Otake's waiting room, above the local
Makudonaruda at 7:45 a.m., he witnessed a professionalism of
a new order. Not only were there no seats left, but there
appeared to be no standing room either. The room was chocked
fuller than the Yamanote train during the morning peak hour
and Vince would not have been at all surprised to see
nurse's arrive with white gloves to push everyone in. As
there was no such nurse, prospective patients ebbed out into
the hallway and down the stairs, up the street and around
the block. There were even people waiting in the elevator.
Vince suspected that half the customers at Makudonaruda were
actually waiting to see Dr. Otake as well, even though the
surgery wasn't due to open for another hour and a quarter.
Certainly, the man must have had some reputation, Vince
decided. Nozomi had told him that Dr. Otake was always calm
and cheerful and gave no nonsense medical treatments. Vince
was not at all sure whether the throngs of people in the
waiting room and outside were testimony to Dr. Otake's skill
or to the number of Japanese people with skin problems.
Connie found a spot somewhere near the ceiling to prop up
Vince and went over to place a card with his name on it on
top of a pile of hundreds of others. Vince had read his way
through Anna Karenina and Gone with the Wind by the time his
name was finally called late that afternoon. He was led past
vast trays of gauzes, cotton buds, tweezers, white plastic
jars full of multi-coloured pills and multi-coloured plastic
jars of white pills into Cubicle No. 8.
The nurse pulled a plastic screen across the doorway and
Vince found himself in a monk-like cell with a cot bed and a
machine that resembled an aircraft flight recorder box and
was clearly labelled in English, Laser Knife. Vince had
suspected as much from the start. He only hoped that laser
amputation was less painful than the regular sort.
If Vince had thought the waiting was through, he was wrong.
There were eight such cubicles and Dr. Otake didn't arrive
for another half hour. Vince was surprised to discover that
the specialist was a woman. He would never have made such an
assumption in Australia, but here in Japan, it had seemed
possible that all doctors were men and all nurses were
Dr. Otake took one glance at his feet as if they were the
50,000th. pair she had seen that day and made a quick sketch
of them. Vince caught a glimpse of it and it looked more
like one of Picasso's etched nudes. She then burbled
something to the nurse and left within thirty seconds.
Before Vince knew it, a hyperdermic needle jabbed into his
shoulder and 20 ccs of clear fluid emptied into his veins.
Vince's brain told him that these were drugs. He was ushered
back to the waiting room where they spent another hour
watching another nurse doling out pill and creams,
"You take the green ones in the morning between breakfast
and lunch. You take six of these red ones a day, one with
every meal. You have two blue ones just before bed and if
the pain gets so agonising that it's unbearable take one of
the apricot ones with the purple spots.
Finally, Vince's own medication arrived and he was relieved
to discover that there were enough pills to share with his
junkie friends at work. Admittedly, there were no green
ones, but there were white, pink, yellow, red, blue, russet,
cobalt, canary yellow, tan and beige ones: seventeen kinds.
Plus seven plastic jars of cream.
"You take this one in the morning with breakfast ..."
"What's it for?" Vince demanded groggily. akf
The nurse looked at him bewildered, as if it was the first
time that she had ever heard the question.
"You take this one in the morning with breakfast," she
"What's it for?"
"It's for breakfast."
"I know you have it with breakfast," Vince said testily.
"But what is it called? What does it cure?"
"I don't know," the nurse blushed. "I only work here."
Aghast at the sheer quackery of Dr. Otake's surgery, all the
reports he'd heard about the malpractice of the Japanese
medical profession were confirmed.
"She hardly glanced at my feet," he told Connie. "Then, she
gave me an injection, without even checking my blood
pressure, without even asking me if I were allergic to
anything. And I'm half tempted not to take any of this
pharmaceutical factory full of pills that they gave me."
Connie looked at him patiently, "Maybe, you should at least
try them, Vince. There were an awful lot of people in that
waiting room. You'd hardly think that there'd be so many if
she didn't have some success with her patients."
"I don't know."
"Now, what would you tell me if you saw a crowded
"I'd say the tucker was good and it was cheap."
"So, we already know that Dr. Otake charges reasonable rates
and maybe her medicines work, too."
Mumbling something about the dissimilarities between
restaurants and clinics, Vince reluctantly started taking
the pills and was more than a little chagrined to discover
that they did work. The swelling went down almost
immediately and when he returned to Dr. Otake's waiting
room, the following Monday, his feet were beginning to feel
normal. Connie had managed to convince him that it could not
possibly be as crowded on a Monday as it had been on a
Saturday. But she was wrong. The only difference was that he
was ushered into Cubicle 6 instead of Cubicle 8. It might
have looked exactly the same had it not been for the absence
of the laser knife. In its place were two containers of dry
ice. No fewer than three nurses bowed and apologised their
way into the cubicle to get a beakerful of the solid carbon
dioxide and soon Cubicle No. 6 was looking like the perfect
stage setting for Macbeth and Banquo's meeting with the
witches on the heath.
Over the weeks as Vince's feet repaired themselves, he moved
up the line of cubicles. Cubicle 5 had the radio knife.
Cubicle 4 had the electrolysis lamp. Cubicle 3 had the
oxygen equipment. Cubicle 2 had a collection of medical
comic books with the most up-to-date techniques. And Cubicle
1 had the infra red analysis camera.
Once he'd reached Cubicle 1, Dr. Otake came in and
pronounced him cured. She congratulated him on his fast
recovery. He had after all repeated only one part of the
treatment. He'd spent two sessions in Cubicle 5 with the
radio knife. She neglected to mention that he'd never been
in Cubicle 7 and when she asked him if he had any questions,
he thought for a moment and asked:
"Yeah, what's in Cubicle 7?"
"Well, the laser knife is in Cubicle 8," he counted them off
on his fingers. "The radio knife is in Cubicle 5, the dry
ice is in Cubicle 6, the medical manga are in Cubicle 2, the
electrolysis lamp is in Cubicle 4, the infra red camera is
here, and what's in Cubicle 3?"
"The oxygen equipment," Connie replied. "
"That's right, the oxygen equipment. So, what's in Cubicle
Dr. Otake smiled sublimely and closed the curtain without a
"I'll go look for myself," Vince muttered.
But he didn't. He simply kept on wondering. Was it a
professional secret or was the question just too
unprofessional to be answered? Vince wondered what you had
to do to get into Cubicle 7, what foul diseases of the skin
were treated in there. But some things are better left as
mysteries and Vince was happy enough with his old feet, that
hadn't been amputated after all. Happy enough anyway, never
to want to go back to Dr. Otake.