Discover Deep Japan

Going to the Doctor in Japan

by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

One of the biggest sources of stress for new residents of Japan is how to handle medical issues when they inevitably crop up in our lives. Luckily, the Japanese healthcare system is relatively painless to navigate, and has gotten increasingly more English friendly in the past few years. There is a whole lot of information out there these days, but the following is a step- by-step, basic guide for everything you really need to know about going to the doctor here in Japan, especially around Tokyo. While this DISCOVER DEEP JAPAN LIFESTYLE GUIDE is just an overview of the bare essentials, there will be links provided with more detailed, specific information, including some recommended places to go for expats.

Step 1: Where to go (the easy way!)

Just about any town or city you can go to in Japan is full of medical facilities, but it is important to know which is right for you. In terms of quality, most places are reasonably good, and if you’re sick, you generally won’t feel like traveling far away anyway, so going to the place closest to your home or workplace is usually totally fine. Even better, getting a recommendation from a friend or colleague is usually your best bet.


Step 1 (the slightly less easy way): Doing your own research

Luckily for those living around Tokyo, there is a wonderful service provided by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government known as “Himawari.” Himawari is an online directory of clinics and hospitals that is easily searchable according to various criteria, and is available in English (see link below).

To use Himawari, first search by “language ability,” then input your address or closest train station. Then click the open tab for “consultation departments.” You will see a bunch of checkmarks; choose the department and then your native language. It is best to search an entire group of specialties and keep your search distance fairly wide- at least to start. If you are not getting many results, click “no selecting” under the date tab. For whatever reason, Himawari defaults to searching for places that are open at the exact time you search. So, for example, if you are searching at night for a place to visit the following day, you may only find emergency clinics open at that very moment. The results will specify the general level of English at that location.


Step 2: Finding your doctor

What sort of doctor should you see? If you are feeling generally unwell a naika (内科) or internist is usually a safe bet. For joint or muscle pain, or broken bones, there is a seikeigeka (整形外科) and for problems with your eyes you probably out to see a ganka (眼科). Be aware that any hospital or clinic that uses the kanji 小児 is likely only for children, likewise any office with the characters老人 likely specializes in elderly patients. In many places, one building will house multiple unaffiliated clinics, each with their own specialty, which may be convenient.


Step 3: Clinic or Hospital?

For some of us, depending on where your home country is, “clinic” might be a dirty word, denoting poor quality of care. Please note that this is not the case in Japan. In fact, you will likely be going to clinics for the majority of your medical needs. On the other hand, to be seen at a hospital- for example, by a specialist- you usually need a referral from a clinic, though different hospitals may have different policies in regards to this. During my first years in Tokyo, my closest doctor’s office was actually a private hospital that took walk-ins, and I usually just went there since it was the most convenient. Later on, I saw a specialist in a separate university hospital; this facility required a lot of paperwork to join, as well as a letter of recommendation, which I was able to receive through connections at work. If you do want to use your local all-purpose hospital, the best thing is to call in advance and inquire about clinic hours. There have been cases where people have been turned away from hospitals, and you definitely don’t want this to happen to you when you actually do get sick. Otherwise, it is also possible that hospitals will allow drop-ins but charge extra.

Please note that relatively few clinics accept credit cards.


Step 4: What to say

Regardless of where you end up, all doctor’s visits generally go the same way: you arrive to the reception desk, where you will probably asked about your symptoms (shoujo in Japanese), usually something along the lines of: “Shoujo wa dou nasaimasuka?” Below are some of the most common symptoms in Japanese. Don’t worry about specifics just yet, and keep it brief; the doctor (who, chances are, understands more English anyway) will ask you the details later.

Some useful vocab:

  •         My (head, eyes, ears, arm, leg, throat etc) hurts – (  ) ga itai.
  •         I have a chill – Samuke ga suru.
  •         I have a fever – Netsu ga aru.
  •         I have a cough – Seki ga deru.
  •         I feel dizzy – Memai desu.
  •         I feel nauseous – Hakike ga suru.

Upon becoming a patient of a hospital or clinic, you will usually receive a card from them indicating this. Be sure to bring it with you whenever you come back!

Step 5: Filling out painful paperwork (and how to make it less painful)

You will then be given a form to fill out, usually preceded by the receptionist asking (with some trepidation) if you can understand Japanese. As anyone who has lived here long enough knows, it doesn’t take long to get buried under a mountain of paperwork written in formal (read: difficult) Japanese. Luckily, you actually can skip this step by filling out a Multilingual Medical Questionnaire (see the link below), and downloading an English version of whatever form you need! Lastly, do remember to bring your insurance card with you.

Then you wait! Unless you are seeing a specialist, it’s not a bad idea to bring a book or a podcast to doctor’s visits in Japan. Unless you were given a specific appointment, it’s best if you just arrive as early as possible; especially busy offices often let early bird patients come in before the office even officially opens.

Step 6: (Finally) Seeing a doctor

When you are eventually allowed into the doctor’s office, you will be examined by your wonderful English-speaking doctor, given a diagnosis, and then scheduled for a follow up if necessary. In more serious cases, you could also be given a referral to see a specialist.

Words for Common Illnesses:  

  •         Infuru(インフル ) – Influenza / The Flu  
  •         Kaze (かぜ) – Cold    
  •         Haien (肺炎) – Pneumonia   
  •         Mizubousou (水ぼうそう) – Chicken pox  
  •         Chouen (胃腸炎) – Gastroenteritis  
  •         Zensoku (ぜんそく ) – Asthma   
  •         Necchuushou (熱中症) – Heatstroke  
  •         Kikanshien (気管支炎) – Bronchitis
  •         Hayarime (はやり目 ) – Conjunctivitis / Pink Eye
  •         Sennetsu (腺熱 ) – Mononucleosis (Mono)


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Step 7: Receiving Medicine

Finally, when you pay at reception, you will be given a prescription for any medicines you need. This can be handled at any pharmacy which advertise that they accept prescriptions, such as signs with the Japanese [処方せん受付]. Unless you have a particular favorite pharmacy that you prefer to use, many clinics and hospitals actually have a pharmacy in the same building. You will probably be prescribed medicine to take orally in pill form; you may also encounter various powders with a basis in Chinese medicine known as kanpo. Most Japanese medicine has a reputation of being weaker than you may be used to, including painkillers. Japan is very strict with regards to the usage of certain medicines, and if you hope to get some sent to you from your home country, there are rules and restrictions regarding this as well.


Other Important Info: Insurance Concerns (And why it’s probably OK!)

As long as you are residing and working in Japan under a valid visa, costs for general doctors’ visits and medication should be partially covered by insurance, and won’t break the bank, but if you want to save even more money, do let the clinic know that you will accept generic medication. This is often a question on a form or questionnaire that they give to newbies, but to save yourself the hassle it is also possible to get a generic medication sticker for your health insurance card.

Certain private hospitals or private practices that serve predominately foreign patients may have different rules regarding health insurance; it is usually a good idea to confirm these details BEFORE you go.


A quick word about dentists:

Personally, I was worried about going to the dentist in Japan much moreso than even going to the doctor, and it turns out I’m not alone. If you are particular, there are a number of dentists who have been certified by the American Dental Association. As far as cleaning, keep in mind that it is still typical for Japanese dentists to clean top and bottom teeth on different days, and while some dentists will allow you this convenience, it may be at the cost of not being covered under insurance. Keep in mind that unless you are having a dental emergency you will be expected to make an appointment, even for a so-called “dental clinic.”


A quick word about mental health specialists:

Unfortunately, mental health counseling in Japan may not quite be up to the standards that you are probably used to, and often is not covered by insurance. However, there are online services available in English as well as a few clinics you might want to try. Generally speaking, the same few psychiatrists tend to be recommended, and conversely, not recommended, among the foreign community. Even if it’s just burnout or homesickness, don’t hesitate to seek help.


Helpful Links

Himawari Tokyo Website (In English)



Multilingual Medical Questionnaire



More English Info about medical checkups, etc.


International Mental Health Professionals Japan



TELL Counseling Hotline



More detailed information about health insurance in Japan



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