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Coming to Japan with his eyes wide shut

by Everett Kennedy Brown

Omar Karlin would be blind today if it weren’t for that crazy, half-baked business scheme of his.

It was the summer of 1998. Karlin arrived in Osaka with a discount plane ticket and two suitcases stuffed with old blue jeans. Back in Canada, he had heard on the radio that Japanese young people were paying hundreds of dollars for used, red-tab Levi’s. Karlin thought a trip to Osaka sounded like a great way to spend his summer vacation and make some money, too.

When Karlin reached the trendy America Mura shopping district of downtown Osaka, he discovered he had been misled. American jeans were plentiful and cheap. To make matters worse, he couldn’t communicate well enough with the local shopkeepers to sell any of the jeans he had lugged with him. The business plan was quickly aborted, and Karlin decided to just enjoy himself during his remaining time in Osaka.

Then one night, he met a fellow Canadian working part time as a bartender. The Canadian told him about the great experience he was having at his day job, teaching English. He suggested that after Karlin finished university, he come back to Osaka and give English-teaching a try.

After returning to the University of Toronto for his senior year, Karlin decided to apply for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. It was a backup plan for the English literature major, who was also applying for admission to the University of Toronto Law School. Fortunately for Karlin, he was not accepted into the law program.

After graduation, Karlin returned to Japan and began work as an assistant language teacher (ALT) at Zenbo Junior High School in the city of Kasai, just outside Osaka.

To encourage his students to speak English outside of the classroom, he rewarded their efforts with specially designed Karlin dollars illustrated with outlandish pictures of his face superimposed onto the bodies of Japanese icons like Godzilla and Pikachu. Though the dollars were intended to be used at auctions organized by Karlin, the kids began hoarding them like Pokemon cards. Karlin was an instant celebrity.

The pace of his new life in Japan was particularly comfortable for Karlin. But in early January last year, an old problem came back to haunt him.

Due to a rare genetic condition, when Karlin was 9 years old, the retinas of both his eyes detached. Though he lost vision in his left eye, a series of operations performed over the next five years eventually salvaged his right eye. Doctors stabilized his condition, and for the next 10 years Karlin experienced no further problems.

Then, back in Osaka after returning from a winter holiday in Canada, he noticed a black spot in his good eye. For several weeks he tried to convince himself that it was just his eyebrow impinging on the edge of his field of vision. But his unease eventually convinced him to see a specialist.

Unable to speak Japanese and feeling more comfortable seeing a specialist who was familiar with his condition, Karlin decided to return to Toronto for a checkup. His Canadian doctor told him that his retina was beginning to detach again and surgery was necessary.

The operation, however, did not go well. His one good eye filled with blood, and only after two weeks of complete blindness, during which he was given powerful drugs to reduce the swelling, did he begin to see again.

“You cannot imagine the joy I felt to be able to see Vince Carter win the NBA Slam Dunk contest on television,” Karlin says. “Even though I had to sit about an inch [2 1/2 cm] away from the screen to see it.”

Just under a month after going to Canada for treatment, Karlin had recovered enough to return to Osaka. It had been the end of a terrible ordeal — or so he believed. But a week after being back at his school, he had a checkup at Osaka University Hospital, where the doctor told him that his retina was beginning to detach again.

“My initial reaction was dismay. I wanted to doubt the Japanese doctor’s diagnosis,” Karlin says. “But I eventually accepted the fact that I wasn’t out of the woods yet.”

Fortunately for Karlin, the doctor who was to supervise this latest operation was one of the world’s foremost experts in retina surgery — Yasuo Tano. In a series of four innovative operations over a period of two months, the lens of Karlin’s eye was replaced with an artificial one. And when the bandages around his eye were finally removed, his vision was fine.

“Through this experience I literally walked the razor’s edge,” Karlin says. “It felt like everything in my life had been taken away from me and then given back again. If I had been anywhere else in the world with this eye problem, I surely would be blind now. Thanks to Dr. Tano, I have my life again.”

All told, Karlin had been absent from his teaching duties for nearly three months. When he returned to work, it was the time of year when school districts decide whether or not to renew an ALT’s contract. Karlin was anxious — but his fears proved groundless.

On his first day back at Zenbo Junior High, he was met with a heartfelt welcome from students, fellow teachers and his supervisor from the local city office. “Their show of support,” Karlin adds, “had a big effect on my feelings toward Japan.”

When asked about his future plans, Karlin says: “I really enjoy my life here in Osaka. After I finish my third and final year with the JET program, I’m considering continuing with a career in education. Whatever the future holds, I definitely see a deep continuing connection with Japan.”

Maybe selling Levi’s in Osaka wasn’t such a bad idea after all.