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Japan resident, get set for your date with dentistry

by David Hickey

They were four simple words that I never wanted to hear: “Ha wo warimasu, ne (歯を割りますね, I’m going to split your tooth, OK?).”

That day was the third installment in the gnasher (not slasher) trilogy “My Date with the Dentist.” Parts one and two were short, painless affairs with a local haisha (歯医者, dentist), who dispatched my oyashirazu (親知らず, wisdom teeth) to history with a minimum of fuss. Once the kyokubu masui (局部麻酔, local anaesthetic) had set in, it only took my sensei (先生, meaning teacher, but also used to refer to any authority figure) a few minutes to crowbar the upper-right and upper-left third molars from their sockets. Not much blood spilled there.

But the third visit left an entirely different taste in the mouth. My usual dentist had already warned that the extraction of my last wisdom tooth — the lower-right molar — would be taihen (大変, an ordeal). He had examined the rentogen (レントゲン, X-ray), seen it was yoko (横, sideways) and sensed kiken (危険, danger). Better to have had it extracted when it had first pushed through my gums in my early 20s, he said. In any case, he washed his sheathed hands of the task, wrote me a shōkaijyō (紹介状, letter of introduction) and sent me rubbing my jaw to a major hospital in Tokyo with an entire floor dedicated to oral hygiene. This place, he assured me, would be better equipped if my haguki (歯茎, gums) refused to stop bleeding or the dentists damaged a shinkei (神経, nerve).

The new dentist was a baby-faced chap who we’ll call Wakahisa in this article. He had graduated only a couple of years earlier. Long in the ha (歯, tooth) he wasn’t. But he had a calming chairside manner, and I hoped his youthfulness meant he was some kind of prodigy of the pearly whites who had struck upon a revolutionary technique that inflicted no pain on patients during molar removal.

On a piece of paper, Wakahisa scrawled a few helpful words in both Japanese and English. They read: kansen (感染, infection); kusuri no fukusayō (薬の副作用, side effects — which I might have from the painkillers, anti-infection tablets and anti-inflammation pills I’d soon be taking); and, most alarmingly, mahi (麻痺, parathesia, where the nerve is damaged, sometimes causing long-term numbness in the mouth). Having no other option, I signed the form agreeing to the procedure.

A week later I was back in the chair, squinting under the harsh beam of the examination light.

Ugai wo shitekudasai (うがいをしてください, Please gargle),” Wakahisa said, pointing to a cup of lukewarm water, then, “Taoshimasu, ne (倒しますね, I’m going to lower [the chair]).” And the final preliminary: “Kuchi wo ō kiku akete kudasai (口を大きく開けてください, Please open [your mouth] wide).”

Once the anaesthetic had numbed my mouth, Wakahisa methodically set about carving up the inside of the back of my gob, slicing open the gum and removing the bone that hid the impacted canine. Every few moments brought a fresh twist of the knife.

Tsukareru toki hidari te wo agete kudasai (疲れる時左手を上げてください, Raise your left hand if you get tired),” Wakahisa said, so I did, sitting upright to cough up the crimson river pooling in my mouth. The red splodge, some of it at least, landed in the washlet. Shards of bone winked back at me.

Wakahisa tossed aside the tissue connecting tooth to bone and gave a few pulls with some sort of grappling instrument I was too scared to look at. My entire cranium rocked with each heave. The tooth wouldn’t budge. So he started drilling. Actually, I think he used a minichainsaw. The whiff of burning from the friction smelled like napalm.

More than two hours I was in that chair. There are worse agonies in this world, I imagine — giving birth, waterboarding, listening to a Mika Nakashima album. But I didn’t just lose a tooth that day, I lost a part of myself.

He got it out in the end, of course. For all the trouble it caused, the tooth looked surprisingly small, but then it had been mangled into three sorry-looking chunks. Wakahisa pointed out the dark, inflamed tissue that had been causing me pain. Part three of “My Date with the Dentist” was over. Tears, I’m not ashamed to say, welled in my eyes.

When it comes to wisdom teeth, kyo dekiru koto wo ashita ni nobasuna (今日できることを明日に延ばすな, Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today). Take my advice and get on the phone. Here are four more simple words: Yoyaku wo onegaishitain desu (予約をお願いしたいんです, I’d like to make an appointment.)