Thursday, November 25, 2010

Health in Japan: A Survival Guide

{Bursting with health.}

Over the course of living in Japan, you will most likely have to visit a doctor, dentist, optometrist, or other health professional. Getting sick while abroad can be fairly unpleasant, and small matters like making an appointment or communicating can be very challenging and frustrating. However, Japan has an efficient health care system, and I can say I've only had positive experiences. More often than not, the staff thought I was cute and entertaining, and I left rather happy. My dentist even asked me for French lessons...

Here are some things to keep in mind for health in Japan:

National Health Insurance

It is compulsory for most new teachers in Japan to sign up with the National Health Insurance, which is actually great. The first year is rather cheap (around 2500 yen per month) and you can sign up at your local city hall. The benefits include a 70% coverage of all fees relating to consultation, treatment, and medicine. Carry your card at all times, and just present it at the reception when you arrive at your appointment. I strongly recommend visiting the dentist for regular cleanings and even cavity fillings, as it is much, much cheaper than it ever was back in Canada. Insanely cheaper.

Health handbook

Most likely your company or program will provide you with an extensive medical phrase book, which can come in very handy at the doctor's office. Most doctors know quite a few English medical terms, even in the most remote areas (hello, Shikoku). They also usually have English medical books, so they can show you the description and you can confirm the symptoms.


Japan has more hospitals per capita than any other country, and here, 'going to the hospital' usually only means going to a health clinic. Dental and eye clinics also abound, but make sure you research a bit before going anywhere. You can ask some Japanese friends or coworkers for recommendations, and your local city hall can help you find English-speaking health professionals. Surprisingly most offices tend to look a little outdated and run down, but the staff is high skilled nonetheless.

Japanese language skills

It's always best going to any appointment with someone who's fluent in Japanese, or have your mobile phone handy to call the company's office or a friend to translate if necessary (believe me, it can be embarrassing). If it's not possible, most towns (even small ones) provide an English speaking hotline for foreigners, which can be very useful. You can find that information on your town's website. I've used the service a few times, and they were incredibly resourceful, helping me find doctors/dentists in the area, setting up appointments, and even giving me phrase books and maps. In a way I think it's more interesting to go on my own, as I get to practice my Japanese, even if it leads to mini meltdowns.

Keep your chin high

You'll need to stay brave and calm, and be open-minded. Treatments can be different than what you're used to, but effective regardless. And forget about privacy- the whole waiting room and staff will know about your issues. Furthermore, being the sole foreigner in the office can cause a lot of excitement and curiosity, especially in rural towns. On the other hand, it can also lead to unbelievable care and kindness, as most Japanese health professionals will want to make you feel comfortable and welcome.

That being said, I've been to the dentist and doctor in Japan, and I've only had pleasant experiences. It can get stressful since the whole process can be a little more complicated than it is back home, but then again, it's part of the adventure of living abroad...

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