Trauma: Doctors, Earthquakes and Chikan (Oh My!)

Tales of Trauma from Days of JET

(Fall 2007)

Despite many wonderful and inspriring moments while on JET, there were of course moments that were downright traumatic.  Let’s relive some of them, shall we?

While playing baseball with my junior high school club baseball team in my host city, I twisted my knee and tore some medial
meniscus cartilidge.  The knee ballooned to the size of a honeydew melon as I got on my bike and pedaled as fast as I could, with
one leg of course, to the local hospital.

At the hospital, they took me to the MRI room and proceeded to force my knee straight (something it did NOT want to do) and then
asked me to keep as still as possible for forty minutes while they took the test. I am a grown man, but the pain was so unbearable that
the tears and sweat got intermixed as the area around my head began to resemble a small lake. The MRI technicians didn’t talk to me
during the entire episode (very unusual if you’ve had an MRI before) and didn’t seem to think it important to tell me that they needed to
run the test again. Yes, I was in that damned machine for an hour and 20 minutes while screaming bloody murder internally.  When
they finally took me out, I let out a fairly good-sized “Arrrrrgggghhhhh!”

In the end, I ended up talking my way into getting to go to the big city, Asahikawa, to have my surgery as there was a “knee specialist”
who studied in Chicago.  Even though I was able to communicate with the doctor in my local town, I did not like how behind the curve
the local hospital was.  It is truly amazing how advanced Japan is technologically, yet they can still be very behind in many areas of
medicine…. at least in the small towns. The big cities are a totally different ballgame.

By the way, I ended up playing baseball for the local city hall team the following year and got my revenge against the local hosptial
team (yes, those two MRI technicians played ball) by getting a couple base hits and scoring the winning run. Take that you crazy,
pain-inflicting SOBs!!
-Toby Weymiller, Hokkaido-ken, 1997-00


Once at an enkai, I threw up on my kocho-sensei.  Embarrassing.


I was actually not home for the most traumatic event to happen to my town while I was on JET.  I was on the Shinkansen on my way up to
Tokyo to meet my boyfriend Jeff at Narita.  As I typically did when on the Shinkansen, I was reading the electronic news ticker at the
front of the car to practice my kanji when up popped something about “O-jishin Tottori-ken, Hino-Gun,” which I was pretty sure meant
“Big earthquake Tottori-ken, Hino-gun.”

Well, I just happened to live in Hino-gun in Tottori-ken, and I didn’t like the idea of an o-jishin in my hometown.  I turned to the
businessman next to me and asked if I had indeed read the ticker correctly and that there was, in fact, a big earthquake in my
hometown.  His reply was “Yep, there was a huge earthquake out there, sounded really bad.  But, it is very inaka and not near anything,
so you don’t need to worry.”  Right. Not near anything, that pretty much describes where I lived.  Yikes.

As soon as I got off the train I found myself a TV and tuned to the national news, which was full of pictures of my beautiful town in ruin
— the road to my house was a pile of rocks; houses down the street were falling apart.  Fortunately, the news said no one was
seriously injured or killed, but many were homeless and much of the damage was still not reported.  What to do? My boyfriend was
arriving in Narita in a few hours, and the news said no transportation was running to my hometown anyway.   I tried calling my
co-workers but the phones were out.  So, I went to Narita as scheduled and spent the weekend in Tokyo.

Coming home that Sunday afternoon was one of the most memorable experiences of my two years in Japan.  Trains and planes were
still not running so we had to take a train to a bus to my car, which was parked in a city forty-five minutes from my town (a.k.a. the heart
of the earthquake zone).  We were still experiencing frequent aftershocks when I picked up the car.  I tried heading down the normal
road to my town only to find it was closed by multiple landslides.  So, I turned back and found a skeptical policeman, who told me which
roads remained open, all the while reminding me that it was very very abunai and that I really shouldn’t be driving there.  Right, but that
was home, so I had to go back.  I had to make sure my friends were OK, my neighbors were OK, my home was OK, my office was OK.  I had to go to work on Monday to do my duty as a town employee and help with the cleanup.  I had to get back.  So Jeff and I followed the
policeman’s hand-drawn map down roads I’d never been on through winding mountain passes.

By now it had begun raining very hard (the policeman had warned me about this, and helpfully said that it would also increase the risk
of mudslides on these mountain roads).  It was also very late and very dark and there were no lights anywhere.  Not only did these
mountain roads not have street lamps, but electricity was out in the area, so there were no lights in any of the houses.  Oh, and I was
almost out of gas.  The gas tank light was flashing.  I was miles from nowhere.  It was pouring.  The ground was shaking.  The animals
were even freaking out (we had to stop or swerve more than once to avoid wild animals of some sort sprinting across the road).  All the
while, I’m trying to convince Jeff that the situation is under control and I am not about to burst into tears.

We finally made it home, after a lot of deep breaths, a lot of wrong turns, and a very empty gas tank.  My house was in pretty good shape,
though all of my plates were broken along with some of the furniture.  Jeff spent the next few days cleaning up my house while I helped
clean up the town (yes, I married this man).

In the end, everyone came together:  JETs, locals, even people from out of town, and we made the community even stronger than it had
been before.
-Clara Solomon, Tottori-ken, 1999-2001


I was driving back from hockey practice in Nagoya one night and was getting impatient in the slow lane, and changed lanes a little abruptly.  I cut off the wrong guy.

He rode up to within inches of my bumper flashing his lights.   We were going about 60 MPH at the time.  When he got some room in the
slower lane, he sped around on my left and continued to harass me.  I thought, “enough of this,” and zoomed ahead of him, approaching
speeds of 80 MPH or more.  There were cars impeding him, and he zoomed around them on the shoulder.  After about a minute he raced
up on my left just as my exit on the right approached.  I noticed he had a big American car, an old Cadillac.  At the last second, I kind of
waved and muttered “see ya,” and veered off on the highway to the right, a highway with one lane in both directions.  He cut across the
pylons dividing the main highway and the smaller one, and maintained pursuit.

He was trying to get around me now on my right in the oncoming lane.  I tried to block him from passing, but could not.  He sped ahead
of me and then stopped right there in the middle of the road and got out of his car, fists pumping.  I screeched to a halt, horrified.  He
was about 65.  Could I defeat him?  I had a hockey stick in my car and, for a brief second, contemplated the prospect of fending him off
with slap shots.  Then, I backed the heck up as he was about ten feet from my car.  Thankfully, no one was coming in either direction.  I
envisioned doing one of those 180 degree turns that you see in the movies, all in one smooth move.  Instead, I clumsily turned around
in about three tries, and eventually escaped in the other direction.

I took a circuitous route home, locked my door, turned off the light, shut the shades, and got under my futon, quivering like a fleeting
sakura petal in the wind.  The big gaijin hockey player, cowering ’neath his covers.  And this concluded my traumatic run-in with road
rage in the Land of Zen.
-Scott Alprin, Aichi-ken, 1992-95


So, there’s that famous saying: ” I left my heart in San Francisco.”  But what about MY famous saying:  I left my appendix in Japan?

Yes, it’s true, and I’m sure I’m not the only JET over the twenty years of the program to have a major organ removed during my tenure
there.  Although I came out of it in one piece (well, two pieces technically speaking), it was definitely a traumatic experience, from the
moment that a fellow ALT and I arrived at the local hospital to have the security guard tell us it was closed…ummm….on a Wednesday
morning at 8:30 a.m.…how can a hospital be closed?

It appeared that he didn’t realize from my hunched over posture and death grip on my friend that something was terribly wrong and we
needed an emergency room.  After some serious pestering in broken Japanese, the guard finally instructed us into the building
towards the emergency window in the rear.   After several hours of questions, blood tests, x-rays and urine samples, the cramping pain
in my side was beginning to subside and I was convinced that it must have been something I had eaten the night before.  Or was it
something more serious like a bug I had contracted during a trip to Thailand a couple weeks before?  To be honest, appendicitis hadn’t
even crossed my mind, so you can imagine the shock I had when I was wheeled in to meet with the doctor, and a nurse presented me
with a cost list for overnight hospital rooms.  I tried to explain in Japanese that I was feeling better, and that I’d rather just go back to
my apartment (a short walk away) to rest.

That’s when they pulled out the English: “operation”…”appendicitis.”  WHAT??!!  Call my supervisor, get someone to explain this to me
in English.  The first words my supervisor uttered were:  “I’m very worried about you” – oh God, am I going to die?  What is going on
here?  Turns out that my white cell count was high and the doctor was afraid my appendix would burst if they didn’t remove it soon.
And by “soon” he meant in three hours – I was already scheduled for the operation, and was going to be taken immediately to be
prepped.  No time to call my mom, let alone wait for her to fly the fourteen hours to get to me.  No time to transfer to an international
(English-speaking) hospital.

I was confused, scared, nervous, and didn’t know what my options were except to put full faith in whoever was performing the
operation.  I have never stayed overnight in a hospital in the U.S., so this was completely unfamiliar territory.

When I woke up I was surrounded by my supervisor, fellow ALTs, and at least one principal from the schools I had been visiting earlier
in the week.  I was greeted with an intense pain in my side and quickly learned where the button was to ask the nurse for more
morphine.  My appendix was gone, and I had been stapled across the incision, I had one week of IV antibiotics, and had to remain in the
hospital for that long.

The first couple days I had a private room, although when the doctors doing rounds realized that I was a gaijin they all wanted to
“practice” their English, and embarrass their colleagues into practicing as well.  Eventually, I was moved to a shared room (a tiny
space of a bed surrounded only by a curtain – I think there were six to eight of us in each room).  I’m sure my roommates will forever
remember the gaijin whose friends pushed the limit of the visiting hours and chattered in English as they were trying to rest.
-Shannan Spisak, Kanagawa-ken, 1996-98


I was driving down a long stretch of of lonely inaka road with some friends. it was late at night. I wasn’t going very fast, as the road (as
they are when you are in inaka) was fairly narrow.  In the opposite direction comes a little Nissan Starlet.  My friends and I heard a loud
“crack!” I looked around, and nothing was amiss and the other car had driven off, so we kept on going.

About 20 minutes later a car pulls up behind me flashing its lights and honking its horn. I pulled over and a guy comes up to my window
saying (in Japanese) “you broke my side mirror off!” We argued for about five minutes.  I thought I had been in my lane.  He thought
otherwise.  We ended up deciding that I would pay for part of the cost of re-attaching his side mirror.  My board of education never
found out.
-Elizabeth Gordon, Iwate-ken 2003-05


I liked doing elementary school visits because they were a nice break from the more formal junior high schools.  One elementary
school I went to in the early spring seemed to be the norm:  enthusiastic kids and teachers but little common language.  I taught
colors and then we all played Red Light, Green Light.  No problem, until at lunch a teacher invited me to eat at her desk with her instead
of a class. That was unusual, but I couldn’t think of the Japanese to say the kids liked it when I ate with them.  So we got our trays in the
almost-empty staff room.

I had rice in my mouth when the teacher asked in perfect English if my parents were worried about me being so far from home.  I
almost choked.  Then I said, “No, because they know Japan is safe.”
“How old are you?” she asked.
“My son is twenty-two.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”   I wasn’t sure how to respond.  “What’s his name?”
She got this faraway look in her eyes.  “He’s dead.”
Oh, good God.
“I’m very sorry.”  I said.
“He’s in heaven.”
“I need a new child.”
She opened up her desk drawer.  On top was a worn Japanese-English dictionary.
“It is,” she said, running her finger down a page, “fate that we met.”
“You are far from your parents so you can be my daughter.”

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember how I answered. I know that when lunch ended I had in my possession a multicolored-marker set in the
shape of pigs and her phone number, which I never called.  I wondered often if I should check up on the teacher, but the lunch
bombardment left me frightened of her. She picked me; I owed her nothing.  Yet I felt guilty.  I told the other ALTs and the CIR about the
incident, and they agreed that it was best not to call her. She needed therapy, not a substitute child.

At the last minute a couple months later I was back at the same elementary school.  The same teacher was there.  She stared at me but
said nothing.  This time I ate with the students.  When it was time to leave I dashed out leaving a hurt, grieving woman behind.
-Alexei Esikoff, Fukushima-ken, 2001-02


School lunch. Daily.
-Randall David Cook, Fukui-ken, 1991-93


Late one mid-tsuyuu night after conducting a cooking class for city hall employees (“Let’s tacos make!”), I was riding my blue mama-
chari home in the rain across a crosswalk and was hit by one of those little things that the Japanese consider to be a work truck, but is
actually smaller than a Ford F-150.

It had just started from a complete stop and had barely gathered any speed at all.  I fell over but was completely unhurt.  It was scary
for me, and even scarier for the driver and passenger who got out in the rain with their matching seafoam green work coveralls and
hard hats, freezing in terror when they saw my gaijin face.  “Daijobu desu ka?”  “Daijobu desu,” I replied.  They bowed profusely and
moshiwakegozaimasen‘d as I walked my bike to the other side shakily.

All I could think at that moment was that I wanted to go home where it was warm and dry and I could have a little nervous breakdown in
-Carol Elk, Akita-ken, 2000-02


When I first moved to Japan as a JET, I was given a ground floor flat directly beside a small alley.  I heard from my predecessor about
her underwear being stolen once when she hung clothes out to dry, but beside that all had gone well with her living conditions.  I
thought nothing of it.  Anyways, all is safe in Japan, right?!

About one month after moving in I was hanging out in the living room with the glass door open (the one beside the alley), trying to
breathe in a little fresh air on a warm muggy night.   I left my flat for only a moment to knock on my neighbor’s door and let him know I
was ready to watch a movie.  When I walked back into my flat, there was an intruder inside!   If the man would have come at me my
actions may have been different, but because he started to run away, my first instinct was to chase after him. Thinking about it now,
the scene was actually quite comical; me running after this guy down the street as I shouted a bunch of English profanities at him.  I
gave up after a few blocks; the little bugger was fast!

After that episode, I couldn’t sleep well in my apartment for a week, thinking every little noise outside was that horrible man.  Then,
after two weeks (when my nerves finally started to calm) I got a knock on the door one early evening. There was some weirdo outside
asking to use my toilet.  Even though I explained that the train station and its restrooms were only two minutes away he still wouldn’t
leave, demanding that I open my door.   Confused about what to do, I ended up grabbing a kitchen knife and swung open the door, but
by that time he was gone.

Subsequently, I was completely freaked out about my apartment, and after a long talk with the landlord I was moved into a flat on the
second floor.  I realized from early on that ground floor apartments in Japan are nothing but trouble!
-Meredith Wutz, Saitama-ken, 2000-02


I would only sign up for the half-marathon if, one, the course was flat, and two, it was a big race. Why? Well, I refuse to take part in any
combination of mountains and running. And having a big pack of runners helps me find a group at my pace.  My teacher (who helped
me fill out the forms) assured me that, to the best of her knowledge, I’d be OK.

It was a chilly morning the Saturday of the race.  Driving to the course through dense, forested valleys and hillsides, I kept waiting for
the land to flatten.  It never did.  The race entrance was at the foot of an endless serpentine road.  It got steadily steeper as it made its
way up the mountain.  Oh great.  I was jittery with pre-race nervousness.  To make my condition worse, I was the only foreigner there,
and I knew about ten words in Japanese (it was soon after I arrived).  I could count no more than 60 runners.  All looked experienced.  I
wanted to go back home.

Soon, we were off.  Uphill, for 13 miles.  I stuck with the laughably small pack for the first 10 minutes.  Then, the road hit the
foothills—so steep it wasn’t bikeable.  I fell back from the rest and soon blew up.  I was alone.  On the side of the mountain, in the
middle of nowhere.  My legs wouldn’t work and knees cracked with pain.  My lungs burned, struggling to pull oxygen from the thin air.  I
still had ten miles to go.  Where the heck were the race volunteers?  Or the water stands?  Or the slow runners?  I finished.  And that’s
all that matters.
-Patrick Burns, Saga-ken, 2006-07


Being an Asian-American in Japan can be a trying experience as a JET.  Moreover, being a Japanese-American JET can place a heavy
burden on one’s life in Japan.  While many JETs bicker about the process to switch over to a Japanese driver’s license, I personally
endured racial discrimination because I was Asian.

While trying to obtain my Japanese driver’s license, there were two other people that were with me going through the process.  There
was a Caucasian-American, Korean student and myself.  The Caucasian-American took the same driver’s education class as me and
passed the road test in two tries (without any comments from the examiners).  While in the case of myself and the Korean student, we
were consistently talked down to and peppered with disparaging remarks on how we were horrible drivers and that we were a liability
to other Japanese drivers on the road.

Discussion with other American JETs brought me to the conclusion that the vast majority (non-Asian) of test takers were simply failed
with an explanation for points taken off.  Simply and cut and dry.  Instead, I had the “pleasure” of being talked to like a little child.  I will
not go into my own reasoning as to why I was given this treatment, but I will say that being a non-Caucasian minority in Japan still
poses unique challenges for the JET participant.
-Lance Kimura, Oita-ken, CIR, 2002-04


The trek was made.  The bags were delivered.  The host family met, and the school introduced.  Ready to finally settle into my new
“home” and catch up on some much-needed rest, I was informed that the gas man would come to my kousha and teach me how to turn
on the water.  “Excuse me!?”, thinking in my jet-lagged-mind, “Since when does one need directions to turn on water?”  To my humble
surprise, I did.

The gas man arrived with tools in hand and my heart sunk with stomach in hand.  Giving me a play-by-play of his actions, he proceeded
to “turn this red knob; push down, turn, and hold this lever, while cranking this arm so that it clicks three times…and then you should
look in this window for the blue flame.”  It was at that precise moment that I vowed to go shower-less for one whole year.  Obviously a
mind reader, the gas man escorted me into the kitchen to assure me “the water here is much easier to use.”  Thinking to myself, “nod
and smile and it will all go away,” I obliged.  After more red knobs, pushing of buttons while waiting for clicks and blue flames and
pulling pins to drain water after every use, I was assured I was qualified to use the water.

With tears pooled in my eyes, weak knees and a queasy stomach, I saw the gas man to the door, while bowing and thanking him
profusely.  Not feeling so good, I thought I’d make a trip to the toilet where I could “relieve” my anxiety.  When I opened the door, there
it was:  a faded green wooden step with an off-white plastic seat loosely resting on top.  “They have got to be kidding me”  was my
theme song for the night.  Inching closer and leaning in, I looked down a six-foot long, dark well which revealed to me the business of
ALTs and Japanese past.  Yes, in all of its outhouse-like glory: my pit toilet.

Turning around to run away, my wonderful predecessor left the instructions pinned to the door: “call the sewage people once every
three months to have it emptied” …oh yeah, welcome to Japan!
-Renay Loper, Iwate-ken, 2006-07


One night, just after my friend left my apartment, I went into my bathroom to take a big shot of cherry flavored Nyquil to deal with a
nasty cold.  Down the hatch in one big shot, or so was my intention.

Next thing I know I’m choking on the syrup, and just as I seemingly coughed through the red goop, more kept flowing and blocking my
windpipe.  After the initial panic and coughing (15 seconds?  30 seconds?  I had no idea), logic kicked in enough to permit me an
internal conflict about whether I should be more concerned with suffocation or vanity, as I continued trying to cough and breathe,
unsuccessfully for the most part. (45 seconds?)  I could call my friend who had just left, but he was probably still biking home, and
besides, I was kind of at a loss for words. (60 seconds?)

Finally, I struck upon a counterintuitive solution, quickly scooped water into my mouth, swished it around and spit it out, after which I
was able to cough out the remaining syrup and collapsed exhausted and terrified, but relieved, onto the bathroom floor.  I surveyed the
red Nyquil flecks dotting sink, mirror, walls, toilet and floor and all I could think about was what this would’ve looked like to someone
who walked in and found me.
-Steven Horowitz, Aichi-ken, 1992-94

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