Oct 9, 2018

Japanese Dentistry: A Horror Story with a Happy Ending

    The first time I went to a Japanese dentist was in 2012. One of my molars had cracked into pieces. Because we live in my husband's hometown, the natural solution to this problem was asking my husband, who asked his parents, who took me to whatever physician they personally trust. In this case, that meant going to see a cranky old man with my father-in-law. My Japanese is so-so for things I do everyday, like shopping. For dentistry? Non-existent. I have more working knowledge of vocabulary for doctor's appointments now, having spent 5 years as a mom here, but this was before my kid existed. 

    My father-in-law knows less English than I do Japanese. This did not stop him from trying to whisper something about the bad form I was showing by taking my shoes off and shuffling my feet into the dental clinic's vinyl slippers clumsily. So I will freely admit that I was already uncomfortable before anything began and came with little language knowledge and no translator, but I did not have a strong dentist-phobia. I didn't love seeing the dentist, but it wasn't such a big deal.
    The thing I remember most clearly from this visit was how bad the man's English was and his inability to speak to me in simple Japanese. Instead, he poked around in my mouth and said, "Treatment..."
    At the time, I thought he was asking if I had been doing any kind of home treatment on the broken tooth, which seemed like a question someone in his position might ask. So I said no. And he got angry.
    It turns out he meant to ask if I would like for him to treat my tooth (how is that even a question?), and this meaning would have been made clear in the tense and form of the verb he would have used in Japanese, but he decided that the English held just as much information in the one noun that he chose to use. He was wrong.
    I spent the rest of the time in the chair being grumbled at by an old man who couldn't understand why his obviously magnificent grasp of English was not helping him with this horrible foreign woman. The only other thing I remember him saying was something about dental pulp. In English. At me. And not knowing why I didn't know all of the medical English words he knew. I did look it up later. Dental pulp is the stuff in your tooth between your nerves and the dentin, under the enamel. Apparently mine was bad, but not as bad as his English.

    I had to return to this guy that week to get fillings done and our communication never really improved. I was glad to be done with him and swore to take better care of my remaining teeth.

    Then came my daughter, and her tendency to ram her head backward at full speed anytime I held her, resulting in a couple of black eyes and numerous upper-cut-style jarring-motions to my jaw. I realized some time ago that my right front incisors was cracked down the middle. Six months ago, it started chipping away, tiny bits of my tooth coming out day by day. At first, it just made my smile a little less even, but everything was still usable. Last week, I lost a chunk closer to the nerve and new I had to do something.

    I reached out to a student who is a dentist and runs a dental clinic with her husband. At the end of our lesson, I asked if she could help me with a problem. I drew a diagram of what was happening to my face and she asked if I wanted an appointment with her husband, who handles the adults in their practice. I readily agreed. In the two times I had seen the man in passing, he had spoken to me with better English and more respect than the previous dentist had ever shown.
    Last Wednesday, I went in. The staff worked with my language level. Everyone made sure I was comfortable. I wear my emotions the way other people wear party hats, so it wasn't as if my apprehension was hidden at all, but they spoke to me gently and well. No one was fluent, but 20 minutes and less than 2,000 yen later, my tooth was fixed and by someone who treated me like a person.

It was wonderful.
Japanese Dentistry: A Horror Story with a Happy Ending photo



A working mom/writer/teacher, Jessica explores her surroundings in Miyagi-ken and Tohoku, enjoying the fun, quirky, and family friendly options the area has to offer.