Monday, August 1, 2011

Off to the Doctor

Coming out of Shinanomachi Station in central Tokyo just before eight in the morning, the crowd is hardly different from other times I’ve been to Keio University Hospital. Mostly elderly people, a dozen or more mothers with children, the ever present sprinkle of blue suited businessmen, but in all that rarely any Western faces. I am the usual exception, which always seems odd at a major and very reputable hospital in a city that includes thousands of Westerners. But such is the case here where for a long time I have come once or twice a year for examination or repair.

Today is another of those days, and this time the appointment is with Dr Kawaguchi in dermatology, another of the annual checkups following a minor fix several years previous. My name is on the appointment list for today, but like everyone else I will wait my turn on a first come, first served basis. That is the system here and in all hospitals in Japan; everyone is used to it and follows protocol without complaint. It is the reason that most want to arrive early.

Inside, I slide my plastic Keio patient’s card into one of the ten or so computers and wait for it to spit out an appointment verification slip. With that, I join the line of people waiting at the reception counter. It opens precisely on the hour and with seven clerks the line moves quickly. In less than five minutes I reach the counter and hand over my appointment slip, patient’s card and insurance card. It’s all quick and efficient and friendly and in the next minute I find a seat near the doors to the dermatology clinic. There are times when seats are scarce, but this time I’m lucky. I have a thirty-five minute wait until the clinic opens at 8:40.

I open a book expecting it to hasten the drag of waiting time, but a conversation between a mother and son seated nearby catches my attention. Within a few lines the book has become a convenient prop to disguise my focus on their conversation. The mother is one in ten million, late 30s, shoulder length black hair, she is wearing a modest dress in navy blue and what were once called ‘sensible’ shoes. She has a mole at the corner of her mouth and a habit of brushing the hair away from her ear as she talks to her son. But it’s more the boy who holds my interest. He looks to be about five years-old and unusually short, his feet hanging above the floor where he sits. More unusual is his manner of speaking, which anyone would guess to be the speech of a much older boy. It’s soon obvious that the small size belies his age.

They are talking about a school he will be entering in the next week, and he tries to assure his mother there is no need for concern. It becomes gradually clear that this tiny tot is not five years-old, but twelve, and is talking about a private junior high. I sneak another look trying to see this boy as one old enough for junior high, but all I see is a child who standing would be several inches below my waist.

The clinic doors open and I drop my appointment slip in the box outside examination room No. 3. There are only two people ahead of me and within fifteen minutes I am seated in front of Dr Kawaguchi as he makes friendly chit chat while reading my file. Two interns stand a short distance behind the doctor and to them he rattles off facts about my case. He looks at a spot on my cheek for a moment, then takes up a small flashlight lens to get a closer look. One of the two interns leans in for a better view and I almost hope Dr Kawaguchi will scold him for coming into the room smelling like an ashtray. Because it is a university hospital all exams and procedures are attended by one or more interns or med-school students.

“No change, no problem. It looks fine.” A note in the file, another appointment for the same time one year later and we say goodbye.

Downstairs I put my patient’s card into one more computer and it tells me the cost (co-pay) of today’s visit. There is a place to put bills and loose change and there I place the ¥980 ($12.77). I walk out of the hospital at five past nine. The weather is good though slightly cool and I stop at the adjacent Starbucks to sit with a coffee under the newly blooming cherry tree. At one of the few outdoor tables I arrange fallen blossoms around my cup. It is peaceful here but the late March wind requires a buttoned coat. I stir the fragile pink blossoms with a finger and then look up to see across the way the mother and son from earlier coming out of the hospital. Walking beside his mother the boy could be a fairy tale child.


  1. What an interesting post. I am left feeling like I want a continued story and hoping that you without being obvious followed the mother and child to see what their day would be like. One wonders if the hospital visit was for the child or for the mother. Hmmmmmmm .....quite interesting.

  2. As usual with your posts about Japan, very evocative, the reader in a chair beside you in the waiting room, observing the mother and fairy tale child. Not sure I agree with Beverly about expanding it. I like the sense of mystery, of not knowing, which is so much a part of everyday life. We see interesting things and wonder and are fated never to know the answer. Well done.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America