There comes this time every year when I, along with nearly all of my colleagues, get handed a large dense envelope. Whenever it comes I instinctively let out a low groan. The yearly physicals in Japan are such an inconvenience. It means a week of paperwork, family tree research, and taking samples of my waste. Fun, fun, fun.
The yearly physical is part of the work culture in Japan. Businessmen and women in Japan sit at a desk for up to 9 hours a day, with the occasional overtime. That sedentary lifestyle takes a toll on the body. This is probably a major reason why employers in Japan are legally obligated to offer yearly health screenings. These tests allow the company you work for evaluate your health and how it has changed through the years of working for them.
The Prep Work
As I said in the introduction, the yearly physical starts with a thick envelope. Based on what exams your company prepares for you the contents may vary but the usual items include: a family history questionnaire, a current illnesses questionnaire, one urine sample vile, and two stool sample tubes with swabs. Along with all this paperwork is a pamphlet that details the various extra tests that the clinic provides if you want to slip in a few other tests while completing your gauntlet of basic tests.
Not much different than the US, except the mandatory part. But, knowing Japanese is very critical. Many of the medical words that appear in the questionnaire are not something you’d find in everyday texts or emails. If you have a good grasp on kanji then you can make your way through the two questionnaires.
Characters like the one for cancer (癌or ガン, gan) or sickness (病, byou) are attached to characters for body parts and symptoms throughout the questionnaire. Unlike English that utilizes Latin and Greek for naming illnesses, the kanji descriptions are pretty straightforward, but it is always handy to have a dictionary app opened on your phone.
As for the family history questionnaire, here’s a tip: keep a copy of the answers for next year. Then you could just copy the information instead of tracking down the appropriate family members and asking the same uncomfortable questions.
Day of the Physical
The day of the test is one of the biggest struggles for me: no eating or drinking for eight hours before the test. If you have read any of my blogs, you know I like to eat, and eat, and eat. The fasting is meant to ensure reliable blood tests when checking your glucose and cholesterol levels. All of my yearly physicals have been in the afternoon which means I get in a big breakfast and a good sized glass of green tea early in the morning to make up for what I would normally have during the day.
Once you get to the doctor’s office the attendants will usually run through a list of questions while looking through your questionnaire, of course all in Japanese. Most are very simple questions like “when was the last time you ate?”, “what did you have to eat?”, and “are you pregnant, have severe health problems, or are allergic to any specific medications”. After this you will be shuffled to the waiting area in front of several small examination rooms or stations.
Each examination room has a different medical device specifically set up for a certain test: cardiograms for your heart, x-ray machine for chest x-rays, a small vision tester, a sound booth for hearing, and so on. You will spend about five minutes in one room and then either go back to waiting or directly to another room. They have magazines for those waiting but I personally haven’t had enough time to even get comfy in my chair before getting called for the next exam.
Once you get through the plethora of examinations, a doctor might sit down with you, take a cursory glance over your x-ray and tests and ask if you have any questions. By “questions” he or she doesn’t mean “serious health questions” or “questions about life or death” but “questions about the physical” or “questions about how your health scores have changed year to year”.
Being a naturally inquisitive person I have tended to ask deep questions or talk about unrelated physical ailments, which is always met by a short nod, a terse answer, and being shown the door. These doctors usually see dozens of people a day and, given the time constraints, cannot give you the in-depth answers or examination that you would get from a primary care physician. If you do have a problem don’t make the same mistake I made in the past; don’t wait for the yearly physical to roll around, go see a normal doctor.
Results of the Physical Exams
After a couple of weeks you will get your test results in the mail. Like practically everything in Japan, test results will have a scoring/grading system. Test results are also forwarded to your company but don’t expect to hear anything from your company unless you fail the test horribly. Don’t worry, I’ve seen chain-smokers and cup-ramen-devourers pass with admiral marks. I keep a hold of my previous result scores to get a general health timeline and adjust my workouts accordingly.
All in all, I wouldn’t really call the Japanese physical “a trip to the doctor’s office”. It’s more like a Japanese medical decathlon. You go to a room, take measurements, and move to the next. If you are someone who always dreaded going to the doctor, it’s not that bad. In America I’ve had surgery, been knocked out, and have had glass shards removed from my body. This is really just an inconvenient breeze. Except for the blood tests. Those nurses are vampires!
Software Engineer and Blogger at TalentHub
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.
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