English for one’s health


A friend recently asked me to teach some English classes for her while she took a semester off to have a baby. Of course, I was happy to help out.

I quickly noticed, however, that these junior high school students were not studying to be English speakers. They were studying to become English ventriloquists. I have never seen students like these, who can speak English without ever moving their mouths. It was clear there would be no aspirated p’s or b’s in this class. Perhaps I should bring in some puppets to sit on their laps.

In order to take on this job of teaching budding ventriloquists, I needed a health check. The school gave me a special form to take to the doctor’s office to have him fill out. The health check costs money, which is probably where the phrase “a clean bill of health” comes from. This health check, called kenko shindan, differs from the ningen dokku, or human dock, which is a more extensive medical check that probably includes scraping the barnacles off you.

The kenko shindan typically includes a chest X-ray, urine sample, hearing test, eye test, and a quick check of the body including recordings of height and weight.

I’ve often wondered why we have to have this health check when taking on a new job. Could they actually deny me a job because of something they uncovered in the health check, such as faulty lymph nodes or porcupine nose hairs?

I stood in the X-ray room hugging the X-ray machine as instructed while the doctor’s voice came over the loudspeaker and blurted out instructions: “Iki o sutte! Tomete! Haite!” (Breathe in! Hold it! Breathe Out!) with such rigor it was like he was leading my lungs through radio taiso at a sports festival.

Later, when I was in the consultation room, I asked him what the meaning of the health check was. “No meaning!” he said, a bit too enthusiastically. “It’s an old custom, and you know in Japan it takes a long time to change things.”

He was speaking Japanese but every now and then he’d throw in an English word. I could tell when he was going to do this because he would hesitate before blurting out the English word with the same gusto as he did in the X-ray room. I imagine this slight pause before the word was because he was warming up his tongue, like a pitcher playing with the baseball in his mitt before finally throwing the pitch.

“Health checks started after the war when many people had contagious diseases such as (pause) . . .”

How could they tell if you had a contagious disease? They didn’t even take a blood sample. Perhaps diseases are more polite in Japan and jump up out of your skin with microphones and sing a few bars of the contagious disease song.

“. . . tuberculosis!” he said as if throwing a fast ball.

He continued, “This would show up clearly in the . . .”

He was looking at my X-ray hanging on the wall and copying it down on the form, adding little accessories to the top of the bones with his pen. Then came the pitch.

“. . . X-ray!” It was a spit ball.

“Not everyone needs to have a health check for a job, only . . .

I was waiting in anticipation, ready to fill in the word “teachers” for him, when he threw a curve ball.

“. . . public servants!” People who work with the public could pass on diseases quite easily, so this was a precaution.

The doctor was really enjoying talking, and tossing out his newly formed English words, so he didn’t need encouragement to continue.

But I don’t think you could tell much of anything else with this exam,” he said pointing to the form. “But if you see someone close up, you might be able to note things like shaky hands or . . . coughing!”

“Before, jobs were very competitive, so if you could show you were healthy, you had a better chance of getting a job. The health check is like asking for a job, like saying please give me a job. I am . . .”

And we both chimed in “. . . healthy!”

When he finished filling out the form, he signed it, put it in an envelope and handed it to me. I paid him for my clean bill of health.

The next time I went in to teach the ventriloquists, I realized that their internal way of speaking English had some advantages. As long as the students were not aspirating their p’s and b’s, I stood a much better chance of not catching any contagious diseases.