The Grinch That Stole My Gall Bladder

Well, nothing like promising a weekly blog and then promptly disappearing.  Actually, I didn’t really vanish. I just went off to join the half a million Americans a year who have their galll bladders removed—only I was doing it in Japan, in Japanese on the kokumin kenko hoken (national health insurance system). I’ve spent most of the last five weeks in hospital dealing with “Grinchy the gallstone,” an appropriate nickname for the irritating little creature who appeared out of nowhere April 19 to put a glitch in my blogging plans.

The Grinch, who resembles a crystallized black snowflake, now sits in a little glass jar on my bookshelf surrounded by his minions (dozens of tiny gall stones that look just like grains of black sand). A souvenir from my surgeon, he’s less than a centimeter-long. (That’s nothing in gallstone terms. Some can run up to 7 cm in length.) Nonetheless, Grinchy proved to be a formidable foe and an imposing presence. Three weeks were occupied with trying to stabilize–with antibiotics and nutritional IVs–the gall bladder he had acutely inflamed. Then, after a quick weekend at home, I was back in the hospital for another week for laparoscopic gall bladder surgery.

I did debate for a few seconds whether to have the operation or not–partly because I am definitely the world’s biggest chicken when it comes to medical things and partly because I wondered about the career implications. What sort of writer would I be anyhow without a little bit of gall?  But with Grinchy on my bookshelf now, I can still say, with all honesty, that I do have more than enough gall left.  In the end, it didn’t take me very long to vote for aggressively going after the Grinch although parting with both the Daily Yomiuri and my gall bladder within three months is more than enough sudden farewells for this year.

As I watched my IVs drip on endlessly week after week, I had plenty of time to think. Beyond Grinchy, the top three topics were: 1. wondering why my fellow Americans back home could not enjoy the reassurance of a national health care option 2. National Nurses Week and 3. how depressing it was to watch the final torturous decline of Japanese TV.

During my stay, Japan’s nurses, like their U.S. counterparts, were celebrating National Nurses Week from May 6 to 12 (Florence Nightingale’s birthday). I crossed paths with dozens of nurses during my stay, almost all strong, cheerful, resolute, computer savvy, caring and compassionate. They were impressive and, I mean, who else out there would deal with all your most intimate bodily functions and still speak keigo (polite language) to you in the process? There are almost one million nurses in Japan with 62.4 percent working in hospitals, 21.8 percent in clinics. (Another half million nursing personnel work as midwives, public health nurses, etc.).  A 2008 survey of working conditions showed 1 in 23 were working so much overtime they were considered at risk for karoshi (death from overwork). A 2010 Japan Nursing Association graph shows that nurses are consistently the lowest paid medical personnel with salaries flatlining in the three million yen range while most other medical personnel–pharmacists, technicians, etc.–at least cross the four million yen line at the peak of their careers.

One afternoon, as I was showing a nurse the large collection of black and blue marks on my arms (acquired during numerous failed IV attempts to tap my notoriously well-hidden veins), she showed me hers.    “Oh, have you been sick recently too?” I asked. “No.” She explained hers were from letting the novice nurses practice their IV injection skills on her before they were allowed to try them out on real patients. As if the hard work, long hours, night shifts and all the rest were not enough, these dedicated nurses were also serving as human pin cushions. Ouch! Why are these people not among the nation’s most highly paid professionals instead of at the bottom of the pay ranks? The politicians and bureaucrats definitely need to think of a way to give these competent professionals a raise and better conditions.  Afterall, it’s in their self-interest. When they get sick, they’ll be glad they did.

The continuing deterioration of Japanese TV was also painfully apparent during my stay. The medium seemed to be self-destructing at a quicker rate than my gall bladder. Watching the IV drip was often more exciting. The hospital must have been aware of the issue too because all patients (even in the four-bed wards) were provided access to BS (broadcast satellite) TV. This allowed us to watch major league baseball (including every game Yu Darvish pitches for the Texas Rangers), lots of Korean dramas, some better quality Japanese dramas and documentaries and real international news. NHK’s creation of a two-tier system, that makes BS a premium service available only to those who can afford to pay extra for it, is a real disservice to their regular subscribers who are already paying dearly for terrestrial TV fare of very little entertainment or informational value.

Still, it is NHK that does give us the morning serial “Ume-chan Sensei,” (8-8:15 a.m. weekdays), which is pretty good and the only continuing series on terrestrial TV worth watching this spring. The banality of terrestrial TV news is also worsening. Never a quality product, news and “infotainment news” post-3/11/11 has become an increasingly other-worldly experience.  Occasionally, here and there, a bit of reality sneaks in–like a quick mention that Tokyo Bay cesium levels are increasing (just as an NHK documentary last year predicted they would). But overall, the networks keep viewers distracted with crime, traffic accidents, and celebrity gossip.

Anti-nuclear protests barely get a mention. When they do, there is little perspective or commentary. Kitakyushu City has pretty much escaped radiation exposure thus far. So the city’s decision to accept trucked-in, slightly radiactive disaster-area debris for burning at city incinerators enraged some local residents. They were filmed throwing themselves under the trucks while women lined their baby strollers in front of the vehicles in an attempted blockade.  Fuji TV showed them being physically removed by the police but concluded the report with a simple “Sah” (now, next) before quickly moving on to a more pressing topic. It turns out some malcontent has been abusing the sculptures of the popular Sazae-san family of cartoon characters, which stand in the Tokyo neighborhood where their creator, the late Machiko Hasegawa, used to live.  Someone has been pulling the lone hair out of the head of Namihei, the series’ balding father figure. Imagine that! The Sazae-san news was number four in the news rankings last week–right after the eclipse, the debut of Tokyo’s towering Skytree complex and a Shibuya Station stabbing. Meanwhile, on the variety and afternoon show circuits, all they do is eat. These programs have deteriorated into endless excursions to gourmet restaurants and coverage of “talents” who take on grease-laden gastronomical challenges.  If the networks keep promoting such silliness, somehow I think Japan will be doing a lot more gall bladder surgery in future.

While I was busy contemplating my navel, a lot of things were happening in Japan last month. New faultlines were discovered in the Japan Sea and under Mt. Fuji and, on May 5 (Children’s Day), Hokkaido’s Tomari Nuclear Power Plant became the last of Japan’s remaining 50 nuclear plants to go off-line for maintenance.  The event could have been the turning point to a nuclear-free Japan but, like Grinchy and his minions, the pro-nuclear forces don’t give up easily. They are already fighting to get some currently off-line plants up and running again. They warn of big power shortages in summer although they haven’t provided too many clear statistics to back up this claim.  The public will have to speak up even more vocally if they want to put nuclear power out of commission for good.

One last piece of news awaited me on my return. The city office had sent along a copy of my new provisional “juminhyo” (residency record).  In July, the alien registration system we have known for the last half century will be replaced by a new system that includes juminhyo for foreigners for the first time. Whether the system will be an improvement or not remains to be seen but it will solve a few problems. No longer will foreign spouses be registered separately so that it looks like their Japanese spouse has no husband or wife and is raising the children alone. From July, we will be listed with our full Roman-letter name on the juminhyo showing we are the spouse. That’s an improvement and should save some paperwork when gathering forms for various bureaucratic purposes in future. One note in the accompanying English brochure did catch my eye. It read: “National and local authorities along with companies and individuals are permitted to view a portion of the information contained in the basic resident registration. If a request for access is granted, foreign residents’ information along with information about Japanese nationals will be disclosed according to the law. A valid reason to access this information would be to conduct research at an accredited university, etc.”

The key word here is “etc.”  It’s long been known that company employees sit all day and copy the available data–names, addresses, number of family members, dates of birth. This is widely suspected to be the reason educational material advertisements arrive just before the kids enter school or prepare for entrance exams and why the Japanese spouses of foreigners sometimes get advertisements for matchmaking services.  If you notice an increase in direct mail after July, you can probably blame it on your new juminhyo. Guess, it’s just one of the downsides of finally being treated-almost-like everyone else.

And for a little inspiring entertainment, check out the trailer for the sequel to the heartwarming 2010 documentary “Herb and Dorothy” by director/producer Megumi Sasaki at Despite their meager salaries, Herb, a New York mail carrier, and Dorothy, a librarian, managed to turn their love of contemporary art into one of the most impressive collections in the U.S. and they are now busy giving it back to the nation. While you’re there, you might want to check out some YouTube samples of the BBC’s excellent family history series “Who Do You Think You Are?” Now that’s a series Japanese TV would do well to copy.