The results of children’s ‘monthly look-overs’ were copied by hand, then delivered to the Central Division of the New Japan Medical Research Center by a foot messenger. A popular manga entitled A Message from the Sea Breeze, about a foot messenger with the legs of a Japanese antelope and a map of every town in the country in his head, inspired lots of children to dream of becoming foot messengers when they grew up, though the general deterioration in physical strength among the young would make that impossible for most. In the near future, young people would probably all work in offices while physical labor was left to the elderly.

All original data concerning children’s health was recorded by hand, with each doctor hiding his patients’ data in a place of his own choosing. There were cartoons in the newspaper showing doctors squirreling documents away in dog houses, or at the bottom of huge cauldrons. Though Yoshiro laughed when he saw them, it later occurred to him that this might be reality rather than satire.

Because the data that each clinic delivered to the Medical Research Center were handwritten copies of handwritten originals, any attempt at erasing or tampering with large amounts of data would take an awfully long time. In this sense, the current system was safer than the security systems invented by even the best computer programmers in earlier times.

Now that the adjective ‘healthy’ didn’t really fit any child, pediatricians were not only working longer hours, but also had to face the parents’ anger and sadness alone, as well as feeling pressure from unknown sources whenever they tried to explain the situation to newspapers or other public media. Many suffered from insomnia or were driven to suicide, until finally the surviving pediatricians formed a labor union, boldly announcing a reduction in their working hours, refusing to submit reports demanded by insurance companies and cutting all ties with major pharmaceutical firms.

Mumei liked his pediatrician, so he never minded going for his monthly look-over. Visits to the dentist were as exciting to him as a school excursion – only Yoshiro found them depressing. Mumei loved sitting high up in the chair, talking to the dentist. On a recent visit, the dentist had said, ‘You mustn’t force milk on children who hate the smell. And even if they like it, you shouldn’t give them too much.’

‘Yes, I’ve heard that,’ said Yoshiro, while the dentist peered down at Mumei and asked gravely, ‘Do you like milk?’

Without skipping a beat Mumei replied, ‘I like worms better.’ Unable to see the line that connected milk to worms, in his confusion Yoshiro let his eyes wander outside the window, yet the dentist didn’t seem the least bit perturbed. ‘I see,’ he said, ‘so that means you’re a baby bird rather than a calf. While calves drink their mother’s milk, baby birds eat the worms their parents bring them. But worms live in the earth, so when the earth is contaminated, the contamination gets concentrated in the worms. That’s why birds don’t eat many worms these days. Which explains why there are so many worms now that it’s easy to catch one. After it rains, you see lots of them squirming around in the middle of the road. You’d better not eat those leftover worms, though. It’s better to stick to bugs you catch flying through the air.’

The Astronaut