I don’t know if it was a common practice to use Self-Heal, the medicinal plant, for ailments in Japan in the 1970s. No one around me used it, but I imagine that it would have had a pungent smell and strong flavor, just like the many herbs that appeared on our dining table that were “good for health” throughout the seasons. The annual herb roster started with butterbur (fukinoto) and angelica tree sprouts (taranome) in the spring, to Japanese ginger (myoga) and heartleaf (dokudami) tea around this time of the year.
It baffled me that adults liked these terrible tasting weeds. They also firmly believed in the old proverb that “good medicine is bitter to the mouth,” and there were many bitter plants and medicines that made life miserable for children growing up in this era.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to suffer much of the consequences of these old-fashioned convictions because I was the healthiest of my sisters. Apart from regular cuts and bruises, I had no health issues. My two sisters weren’t as lucky. They both had asthma and my younger sister had weak kidneys and bladder, so she was frequently in and out of the hospital.
Children were outside most of the time and nature seemed abundant that I often forget that the air we breathed and the environment we played in was quite polluted in a rapidly developing Japan. Like my sisters, many children had asthma, and I remember watching the news about Minamata disease (mercury poisoning) and Itai-itai disease (cadmium poisoning, so called because the victims suffered acute and constant pain and “itai” is an exclamation to pain in Japanese) that were caused by massive industrial pollution during this time.
Over the counter medicines that we used were a mixture of western and herbal kinds. We had a small lacquered wooden chest decorated in Kamakura-bori on the kitchen cabinet that was our “medicine and first aid box”. As soon as someone pulled out one of its small drawers, the distinct aroma of Seirogan wafted in the air. Seirogan was a popular herbal anti-diarrheal medicine that came in a brown glass jar and topped with an orange cap with a symbol of a bugle. Its militaristic packaging scared us and the bad smell that took over the entire medicine box was revolting. Despite its repulsiveness, we had to depend on Seirogan occasionally because its soft black pills, which resembled charcoal pellets, stopped diarrhea and stomach pain very quickly.
For other bitter medicines and strange herbal powders, Oblaat came to the rescue. Oblaat is a clear and extremely thin layer of edible film made from potato starch that is used to wrap medicines. Even though the word “Oblaat” sounds western, it is a Japanese invention that was a staple in the medicine box. This thin, circular film was also a great toy for me because when it was placed on the palm of my hand, it constantly curled and unfurled like it was alive. You may know Oblaat as the edible wrappers of the citrus flavored Japanese rice candy called Bontan Ame that are sold in Asian supermarkets here in the U.S.
A while back, for this essay, I chatted with my younger sister about the herbs and medicines that we grew up with. I told her that I still have vivid memories of her crying and protesting about taking her medication. My sister chuckled and said, “once I screamed at father that I didn’t want to take it.” My father was authoritarian and hardly ever allowed his children to contradict him, so she was expecting to be scolded for yelling. “But then he quietly replied, “I know, I don’t want to give it to you either,” my sister said, “his melancholic words caught me by surprise, so I shut up and took the pills.”
Showa was a silly time when parents had to be invincible and didn’t casually share their own worries and tender emotions with their children. But in moments like that we understood that our parents were just as distressed about us being sick, and that they only wanted us to get better.