At dinner tonight with a couple of Japanese friends, I heard a horror story about student part-time work in the 60s: corpse-grinding.

It’s very common for students in Japan to work part time while they study, and this has been common since the war. Such work is referred to as an arubaito, from the German arbeit, one of Japan’s cuter language imports, and it’s a common assumption that students have this work. In the modern era the arubaito is usually in a restaurant, bar or hostess club, basically anywhere with flexible hours that can be fitted to a student job. But back in the day, you didn’t leave your job smelling of just cooking oil …

My friend’s dad told her that back in the ’60s or ’70s, when he was doing his arubaito, corpses that were preserved for autopsies were not put in a freezer, but were steeped overnight (for a few days?) in a vat filled with some kind of embalming fluid. His arubaito consisted of standing around a large pool with a few other guys, carrying a big stick. His job was to make sure the corpses stayed roughly submerged in the fluid. Occasionally, when he was pushing a corpse down, it would roll out from under his stick and flop to the surface, dead eyes staring at him…

But he once did an even worse job. Back in the day, medical textbooks included pictures of broken arms, but because of the complex nature of medical photography back in the day these arms weren’t the arms of injury victims. Rather, they were the arms of a corpse. And someone had to break them. Apparently the process involved a slow and careful kind of wrenching, not a sudden ping or anything, and it paid well: my friend reported that he was paid 60,000 yen to break a corpse’s arm. I don’t know if that was 60,000 yen in today’s money or back then, but either way it’s a lot of money – $600 at least for a few minutes’ work. But he could only do it once, because breaking a dead person’s arm is not a very pleasant job.

I guess now the doctor just takes out a digital camera and snaps a patient’s arm, maybe pays them $10 (probably not). But back when cameras were not routinely available, and camera skills were weaker, and point and click cameras could not take a photo of sufficient quality for a book, I guess these thing couldn’t happen. So a small and elite number of men worked their way through university through a combination of corpse-drowning, and breaking the odd zombific arm.

I remember once seeing an Oprah Winfrey episode about a man who paid his way through uni by being a sperm donor. I think I’d rather do that!

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