Language | BILINGUAL

How living can kill you, and other inconvenient truths

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

It’s around this time of year that many Japanese turn their thoughts away from Golden Week escapades (if indeed, there were any. This year, according to a survey by Sankei Shimbun, a good bulk of Tokyoites stayed in and laid low during the holidays) and to the kenkō shindan (健康診断, health examinations), mandatory for all seishain (正社員, full-time employees).

My brothers especially turn gloomy at this time of year, because a) they must endure a fast that starts at 9 p.m. the evening prior to the exam and last until the checkup has ended, and b) because after observing the detailed, laborious protocols of the health exam like giving urine samples, at the end all they’re told is to caution against weight gain. As my second brother wails year after year: “Oredemo dekiruyo!” (「俺でもできるよ」 “I can do that on my own”).

The truth is though, the bulk of Japanese males don’t mind this day half as much as they let on. For one thing, kenkō shindan is an excuse to cut work and go home at a decent hour. For another thing, it’s always good to have data on your state of health, so as to talk about it gleefully through the rest of the year. Byōki jiman (病気自慢, boasting about sickness) is a favorite pastime for many males, and these days even teenagers are apt to open a conversation with a remark about their sinuses.

My eldest brother revels in the fact that, every year, his health report never varies. Same taijyū (体重, weight), same ketsuatsu (血圧, blood pressure), and the same check mark next to shibōkan (脂肪肝, fatty liver). Every year, the doctor tells him to lay off the beer and the yakitori and my brother, contrite for that moment — pledges to do so. Infuriatingly however, as soon as the exam is over he hits the nearest izakaya (居酒屋, pub) for a round of drinks. Yet the man’s girth never actually grows larger, or at least not enough to have him running to the Tanita Shokudo (タニタ食堂, The Tanita Diner, an eatery started by a weight-scale company that serves dishes coming up to no more than 550 calories) on his lunch hour. He scoffs at low-cal and non-aru (ノンアル, non-alcohol) beer as stuff for wimps. He stubbornly sticks to his long-time habit of downing a bottle or two of pure lager every single night.

As the only female sibling, I feel like I have a right to nag him about this. Shibōkan is often linked to cases of tōnyōbyō (糖尿病, diabetes): the No. 1 disease among Japanese salarymen over the age of 25, and this in turn can cause gan (癌, cancer) in the digestive system. But does my brother ever listen? He’s the typical Showa no otoko (昭和の男, man of the Showa Era): excessively macho and a little inclined to self-destruction.

On the other hand, when we were growing up he was the one to raise the alert on the perils of sickness by poring over a thick encyclopedia-like book titled “Katei no Igaku” (「家庭の医学」”Medical Knowledge for the Home”). Many American homes have a medical bible or two — well for the Japanese household, “Katei no Igaku” is the equivalent, essential standard. And true, it’s useful for ōkyūshochi (応急処置, emergency procedures), such as setting a broken arm or treating a burn, and dealing with other small disasters that can assail a house with many kids.

We were always reminded by this book though, that home remedies will only go so far. Ishini sōdan surunoga yoideshō (医師に相談するのが良いでしょう, it’s best to talk to a qualified doctor) was an oft-recurring line. The other frequently sighted passage was: yagate shini itaru (やがて死に至る, and you will eventually die). After pondering on those two phrases throughout our teens, we siblings came to the conclusion that life itself will inevitably lead to death. The beer-guzzling, chain-smoking eldest brother was especially adamant on this point. Dōse shinundayo (どうせ死ぬんだよ, we’re going to die anyway) he would intone while tearing open another bag of gekikara senbei (激辛せんべい, red-hot rice crackers), downed with an entire liter of supōtsu inryō (スポーツ飲料, sports drinks) two minutes after judo practice.

Recently, there’s a feeling in the air that we’ve come too far with this kenkō shikō (健康志向, heath-consciousness) thing, and it’s turned the nation’s males into salad-loving, non-aru-sipping, illness-avoiding sissies. It’s not at all unusual to peep into the basket of the guy standing in front of you at the supermarket and see the sanshu no jingi (三種の神器, the sacred triumverate) of shibō nenshō inryō (脂肪燃焼飲料, fat-burning medicinal drink), non-fat yogurt and a plastic container of thinly sliced cabbage. These men have no idea how depressing they are.

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