From my experience, there is very little privacy in Japan compared to the U.S. You want to take some time off during the summer break to go on a vacation? You better write down where you’re going and for how long so that information can be distributed to not only your boss, but everyone in the office. Make a big mistake at work? You’re purposely going to get scolded about it in front of your coworkers. A close family member passed away? You’re going to have to make a public announcement about it whether you want to or not (at least that’s what I was forced to do at work when my grandmother passed away and I had to suddenly go back to America).
The oddest invasion of privacy that I have ever encountered here in Japan is always during the yearly health examinations. Since I’m a public worker, once a year I am required to have a full physical. This sounds awesome, I get a free health check-up and I don’t even need to make an appointment.
Wrong, it is awful.
Here in Chibu, our health check is held in the town hall and it takes up most of the second floor. To start off, you are brought into a big room with many different health screening stations set up. You give the guy at the reception desk your form, and he immediately takes your height and weight in front of everyone. I’m not too self-conscious about my weight (although I’m on the heavier side compared to the ultra-skinny Japanese women), so this wasn’t too big of a deal, but I did find it a little strange. You are then told to get an X-ray of your chest. OK, cool, no problem. Except when I stepped into the mobile X-ray machine in preparation for the X-ray to be taken, no protective belt was put over the lower half of my body. Hmm…that’s a little weird, but it’s only a once yearly X-ray, I guess my goods will be intact for when I want to have kids later.
And then the urine test happened. This was my second time having a health check in Japan, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. The lady at the urine test station hands you a cup. No, this isn’t one of those thick plastic medical cups with the lid that securely fastens. This is just a flimsy paper cup, colored green on the outside, with a little green dashed line on the inside asking you to “only fill to this line please.” There is no lid. There is no way to hide your pee from the eyes of your peers. Last year, I had to ask the lady three times, “so I’m supposed to pee in this cup and then bring it back to you, right?”
I didn’t want to be the crazy foreigner who misheard the nurse and showed everyone her pee. But that’s exactly what I was supposed to do. To make matters even more embarrassing, the urine test station wasn’t even conveniently located next to the restrooms, you had to walk down to the other end of the hall, pee in your paper cup, and then carefully, without spilling and while trying to prevent any of your neighbors from seeing your pee, walk all the way back down the hall.
Had I not been taking part in the ordeal, it would have been a comical sight watching everyone carefully trying to not bump into each other and spill open cups of urine all over the floor. It reminded me of the little old man at the Hiroshima Carp’s baseball game trying to navigate the crowds with his steaming hot bowl of udon noodles…except we were carrying a different kind of yellow liquid. Once I made it back to the urine test lady, she immediately tested it and commented, “Oh, your pee is very clean, isn’t it.” I hope the 5 or 6 people around me were impressed with this because they all heard it.
I then continued to run the gauntlet of other medical tests, all done in front of my coworkers, people of the village, and random doctors who came to the island for this wondrous occasion. There was a hearing test, eye exam, blood pressure test, blood test, EKG, and teeth check. I was hidden behind a screen during the EKG which required my shirt and bra to be pulled up, but there was nothing stopping anyone from accidentally coming in.
The first time around, this experience was very surprising and may have even scarred me a little. Having only been living in Japan for less than a year at the time, I was still the freedom loving American who was used to her privacy. This time around, it was still a little jarring, but not quite as bad. From taking embarrassing medical tests in front of everyone, to always being asked “where are you going?” whenever I leave the island, to the myriad of over the top and overly personal questions that come my way, I’m starting to get used to the group-oriented society in Japan, “letting it all hang out” and relinquishing a bit of the privacy that I once took for granted in America.
Michelle is originally from California, but currently living in the tiny fishing village of Chibu, one of the Oki islands in Japan. Being one of two foreigners living in an island village of a little over 600 people presents many adventures.