The LASIK experience in Japan

For the first time, I’m sitting across from my laptop without any glasses or contacts between my eyes and the screen in front of me. Last Saturday, I finally got LASIK surgery here in Japan.

The first time I considered getting LASIK was back when I was living in Wisconsin. Probably at least partially due to the inhuman winter I experienced my first year there (what did they call it again? winter vortex?…oh polar vortex), my eyes slowly became too dry to wear contacts comfortably. I had a lot of tricks for combatting this very unwelcome change— including wearing just one contact at a time in my stronger eye—but ultimately I had to succumb to the fate of wearing glasses everyday— albeit cool, hipster Warby Parker glasses, but still… I didn’t like having so little control over my appearance everyday. And after a couple of years of wearing glasses, well past the point where I finished off my last desperate supply of contacts, I became aware of a much more serious concern.

I started to become aware of how dangerously dependent I was on my little Warby Parker frames. My vision is (or was, I guess) so unfathomably terrible that if I was wandering around the streets of Tokyo and my glasses happened to fall and break, I would be essentially helpless. I started even having nightmares about this fatal dependancy.

One of my friends in Tokyo had gotten LASIK a few months before I met him, and I remembered him talking to me about this early on in our friendship, almost two years ago now. So I pressed him for some more details, and he directed me to this article that does a profile on one of the more well-known LASIK clinics in Japan: the Kobe Kanagawa Clinic. Despite the name, it’s base is actually in Osaka, and it has a branch in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The article’s super helpful (though maybe a tad lengthy), and the best part is that at the end, in one of his comment updates, the author offers his readers his membership ID so you can get a referral discount.

Exactly a week before my surgery last Saturday, I went to the clinic for the first time for a consultation. Except for a quick 5-minute chat at the end with the head surgeon, the entire consult was in Japanese, which I had basically prepared for, but still, by the end of the ordeal I was feeling more than a little disheartened. This queer kind of self-pity takes possession of me whenever I have to do something serious/risky/excessively complicated in Japanese. I remember about a month or so after moving to Japan, a guy from the electric company came to my door one day to inform me that I hadn’t been paying my electricity bills (which at the time I had no idea how to pay, and somehow thought it was automatically included in the transfer I made to my real estate liaison every month), and I could barely understand him or make my own meaning clear, and I nearly broke down in tears. Or maybe I did break down in tears, after he left of course, I can’t remember.

Anyway, the multi-step eye exam portion of the consult was fine; the eye doctor attending me was sweet, polite, and humble, and gave me the comforting impression that my ability to understand his directions rested in his own ability to speak understandably, rather than in my power of Japanese comprehension. But at the very end, as it came time to actually select the procedure I’d undergo and schedule the excessively expensive surgery, the receptionist sitting across from me in the little cubicle they had arranged for these matters gave me a very different impression. She didn’t alter the pattern of her speech to adjust to my far-from-fluent Japanese skills. When it was evident I didn’t understand something, her only recourse for helping me was to (condescendingly, it seemed to me) translate words like “Saturday” and “4:00.” But again I do think this is my own problem. Even then I could sense that the feelings that were welling up inside me causing me to tear up, and the vicious wrath towards this woman that was heightening dangerously, had their origin in some kind of misguided self-pity. I think my instinctive reaction in these high-stakes Japanese situations is a deep feeling of shame that my Japanese isn’t good enough to protect myself, which quickly turns to a resentment towards my tormentor, and then finally self-pity. Needless to say, I left the office a little frazzled and anxious about my upcoming appointment.

Incidentally, I might as well say what the procedure ultimately cost me. Since I have such severe myopia (near-sightedness) and an astigmatism, I opted for their most expensive treatment, called “I-Design Lasik.” For both eyes, after the referral discount and a discount for paying in cash, it was 307,000yen. It definitely felt uncomfortable walking home from my bank with $3000 in cash sitting in an envelop in my bag. (Also I definitely fanned out the wad of cash when I got home and sent my friend a tacky picture of the obscene stash).

On the day of my surgery, my friend came with me, mostly for support, but also to take me home afterwards, since my vision would probably be pretty hazy. She happily joined in on my continued rants towards the receptionists (the same ones present that day as from my consult), both to comfort and distract me.

After less than ten minutes of waiting, I was dressed in an OR gown and led into the OR hallway. The eye-exam doctor from the consult sat me down outside the operating room and applied eye drops in my eyes to numb them. Strangely, I think those 5 minutes sitting outside the OR, with my eyes turning numb, was the worst part. It was such a queer sensation not being able to feel my eyes, not needing to blink but just doing so out of habit. It felt like there was a gaping hole at the front of my head.

When I entered the OR, the surgeon kindly switched to English, which I really appreciated. The whole procedure must have taken less than 10 minutes. I was laid on my back, one eye at a time propped open with a plastic ring, with a massive machine positioned over my head. As I explained to my friend afterwards, it didn’t feel that drastically different from a normal eye exam. In the course of a normal eye exam I’m also not really aware of what they’re doing to my eyes—at some point some drops are administered that may or may not sting, a few different machines are put against my head where lights, lasers, or puffs of air may come out. Here too I didn’t know exactly what was happening at each point in the procedure, and so tried to just think of it as a typical ignorant eye exam.

Either because of the pain killers I had taken just being the surgery, or just due to the weirdness of the whole experience, I was visibly shaking when they finished and had to be helped slightly off of the bench to the seat where the surgeon examined my eyes one last time. My vision was very weak and hazy, but it actually was drastically improved immediately. When I went outside, I could make out my friend’s face perfectly, whereas before, without glasses, I wouldn’t be able to read her expression even if I was six inches in front of her face.

It was good my friend was with me, even though the receptionist had said that it’s not uncommon to come in for the procedure alone, because I wouldn’t have been able to direct myself to Shinjuku station and onto the correct train home by myself—my vision was too blurry. After about an hour, as the pain medicine wore off, my eyes started aching and the dryness was more and more noticeable, and I became anxious to get home and go to bed.

The next day I woke up with no headache or pains, and with vastly clearer vision from the day before. And in the past few days my vision’s really started to stabilize and improve. At night, there’s a pretty severe halo effect on any lights contrasted against the darkness, which can make it quite difficult to see properly, but in general my vision is already better than it ever was with glasses or contacts. After my one-week check-up tomorrow, I think it’ll start to feel like the recovery is behind me, with the privileges of wearing make-up and biking to work returned to me. It really is amazing how fast your eyes can heal. I feel essentially no awareness that the were cut open, burned, and reshaped less than a week ago, except for a little dryness, and of course, the constant, beautiful awareness that I can finally see the world around me as it actually exists.

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4 thoughts on “The LASIK experience in Japan

  1. Congratulations on the successful Lasik, Taryn! At the risk of over-generalization, I would say that Japanese seem to be better at details than Americans… Your ascribing the anger you felt towards the condescending receptionist to your self-pity seemed quite generous. Most people in that situation wouldn’t self-reflect, but just curse her. Pretty impressive!

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  2. How are your eyes going now, a few months down the line? I’m moving to Japan soon and also considering getting lasik there, as it’s much cheaper than at home.

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    1. My eyes are doing great now! No dryness or any problems. My vision was so terrible when I got the surgery, though, that even now it hasn’t corrected to 20/20, but I can see perfectly fine.
      I definitely recommend LASIK in Japan, but I’m wondering if you speak Japanese? Even at this more foreigner-friendly clinic that I went to, almost no one spoke English. Even though I can speak Japanese, that was really disconcerting for me because it’s such a serious procedure that I didn’t feel comfortable nodding through the parts of the staff’s explanations that I didn’t fully understand.
      So if you don’t speak any Japanese it might be rather difficult…

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      1. That’s great! My eyes are pretty bad too, -5.75 which is why I really want to have it corrected.
        I’m only half way through the first Genki book, so tourist level at best so far. I have 9 months worth of contact lenses left before it’s time to start seriously considering it though. I’m hoping that by then I’ll have made at least one friend with decent Japanese who’s willing to come and keep me company/ help translate. Right now I’m mostly just deciding if it’s something I should be setting money aside for.

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