Apr 18, 2019
I like community service. I think it is an enriching experience both for the community and for the people who partake in it. So, when my university asked me to participate in their annual international festival, I said, “Of course.” The task seemed simple enough: make onigiri for all of the festival guests. Who can’t make a few rice balls, right?
Little did I know what would be coming next.
After agreeing to partake in the onigiri-making, I got a mass email stating that all onigiri-making students needed to show up to a conference area for a briefing.
Okay, so we need to get the lowdown on what’s going on for the event, I thought. No problem.
I arrive at the briefing with about fifteen of my classmates, and spirits are high—we’re all excited to support our school and the local community.
The briefer starts going through the timeline of events for the next couple of months until the festival. Then she mutters something I didn’t quite understand. Before I have a chance to ask what she just said, the briefer does this dramatic board flip, switching the side of her white board that had nice, friendly flyers about the festival, to this:
“Time to explain kenben,” she said.
I’m not that great at Pictionary, and I’d never heard the term kenben before, but that white board said more than enough.
I think for some of the students, it was such a shock that they didn’t even react to it. Me, I was...ummm…how do I put this...rather upset.
Look, I’m all for food safety. I am. I’m also not scared of medical tests. I used to be in the military where I’ve been poked and prodded and inoculated and cut on. Yet, at no point in my 34 years on this planet has anybody ever said, “Hey, Mister, I need your poop. Just get this little hook thing, scoop a bit out, and Bob’s your uncle!”
Okay, getting past my initial revulsion of the test, I began to notice major flaws in the logic surrounding it. The “sample” needed to be submitted over a month before the festival. A month! As if it isn’t possible to get E.Coli or some other communicable disease in less than 35 days. C’mon, man.
The other thing is that the ingredients are not being prepared in an tested facility. It’s just some random equipment that people are using for the festival!
I didn’t say anything at the time, but after the briefing session was over, I talked to the school representative and the rep from the city office. I questioned the necessity of the test. They responded that it was Japanese law that required all food handlers to complete a “kenben,” even if only for festivals.
I explained that I’ve been in Japan most of my life, and I’ve been to plenty of festivals with some oyaji chain-smoking and hacking up a lung while frying up his yakisoba. There was no way they could convince me that that same guy submitted a stool sample to the city office before he went to the festival.
They said, “No, of course EVERYONE does the kenben.”
Then I brought up the issue of the month in between the sample and the festival. Their response: “Well, I guess someone could get sick in between, but I’m not a medical expert.”
NOT A MEDICAL EXPERT.
We went back-and-forth a little more, but what it came down to was a choice between supporting the school and doing the kenben, or not participating. The teamplayer in me sucked it up, but I wasn’t too happy about it. And it’s not really about the test--I’m not happy about the lack of common sense that goes into these decisions and the bureaucratic inflexibility.
The fact is, the kenben measure was put in place after a massive outbreak of e.coli happened around a decade ago. People are supposed to submit a kenben once a year to prove they won’t transmit the disease, but of course that amounts to a random test, not a real measure to prevent communication of disease at specific events. Such a “measure to prevent recurrence” is completely on brand for Japan, where it has no real impact on the root cause problem but gives the government the ability to say, “Look, we did something.”
Meanwhile, poor saps like me and my school compadres have the joy of having to go through this asinine process with NO ALTERNATIVES. No throat swab. No blood test. Nothing. That rigidity is another on brand feature of Japan.
I wish I could say there was some fix for this. I don’t see one. The only thing I’ll say is that we ought to question it whenever we see it. I get that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” concept is a big deal in Japan, but as expats, I feel like it’s our duty to question things that others won’t. Yes, 99.9% of the time, we’ll be ignored, but hey, 0.1% counts for something, right?
Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.
Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).
Interesting... but no requirements for food prep safety? Back home we have to get a 'food handlers card' although we all question its usefulness. I hate to tell you this, but annual kenben checks are fairly normal with your medical check ups once you hit 40. It's probably because of the high incidence of pirori kin in Japan. That's something you want to know about if you have it - before it causes any problems.