Experiencing Japanese Healthcare from Within

Aside from a brief emergency trip to an eye-specialist last Summer (literally a mom-and-pop operation, whose office was approximately half the size of my current bedroom), I have never, during my stays in Japan, been afflicted with illnesses serious enough to mandate a trip to the hospital. At least nothing that couldn’t be treated with a self-administered treatment based on quinine-rich tonic water (aptly sterilized and base-neutralized with proper dosage of gin and lime).

This morning, though, I had to check in at my neighbourhood clinic and undergo a whole series of health exams. Not that I was feeling in any particularly bad shape (nasty lingering chest cough and faint hangover from previous night’s gin&shochu outing aside), but the Japanese Ministry of Education and Research insists on making sure that I don’t have tuberculosis, cancer or bubonic plague before even considering shelling out some Yen toward my World Domination Plot research, otherwise known as PhD.

In the grand tradition of furthering cross-cultural enlightenment that has made this blog famous in the greater Shin-Nakano Sanchome area, I figured I would share some random observations about the experience:

I wasn’t feeling very enthusiastic about the whole thing, given a number of horror stories I’d heard regarding Japanese medical institutions and Japanese doctors. As it turned out, it all went relatively well and I was pleasantly surprised overall. Granted: the absence of actual worries about my health may have made me more impervious to the well-known Japanese habit of treating patients like autistic 5-year-olds with overgrown limbs rather than adults that may want to know what’s going on. Save the one or two times where I off-handedly inquired about results of a just-completed test, not one of them ever volunteered to share even the most basic assessment of their ongoing prodding.

But otherwise, I really can’t complain.

On Friday, Rie had kindly called the local public hospital to inquire about time, price, duration and possibly make an appointment for me. As it turns out, I just had to show up any day Monday-Saturday before 9am, making sure to skip my morning tofu beforehand. Despite that walk-in policy, the ridiculously long series of exams required by the Monbusho (ranging from speech, eyesight and potential color-blindness assessment to multiple blood tests and chest x-ray…), I spent a grand total of 70 minutes, followed by a one hour wait for blood and x-ray results to come back and be added to my completed file. I don’t think I ever waited anywhere for more than a couple minutes at a time. Oh yea, and the whole thing was pretty damn cheap: without National Health Insurance and despite involving every medical technology known to man, it came down to a little over ¥13,000. Which is probably the price I’d have paid to get a cold looked at in the US (yea, I know: you do not get a cold looked at in the US. Precisely).

As for the details of how a routine health check goes in Japan: after first checking at my assigned counter with the lovely clerk that was to become my guide and beacon for the whole morning, I was asked to file an entry form, informed of the total cost for the tests I needed done and finally handed my exam-bingo card with all appropriate kanjis circled. The rest of my stay was spent going on quests to service number: 24, 25, 14, 34, 15, 4, 3, 25 again (physician forgot the ever important color-blindness the first time around). All done with frequent pit-stops back at the front-desk where I would hand in newly gleaned results and receive further instructions, one or two numbers at a time.

Blood draw went OK considering my intense hatred for all things pointy at an unsafe proximity to my bare skin. Didn’t get a cookie afterward.

Eye testing was of course the most fun with language, although not that challenging: Japanese vision test involves describing C-shaped symbols orientations: up, down, right, left… And I was given a small Japanese drill to check that I wasn’t afflicted with daltonism (apparently I can both tell green from red and read random numbers between 1 and 99).

An interesting and perhaps off-putting fact (especially if you were to go to a hospital to get your cellphone dislodged from your rectum or somesuch) is the absolute lack of privacy everywhere. I’ve seen doctors coming out to the waiting area to interview their patients (even administer some eyedrops), most examination rooms (those that do not involve getting naked, of course) are basically just large open spaces with patients occasionally taking the same test side-by-side… Ironically: each of the small station counters, where one hands in their admission form for a specific test, are equipped with that love-hotel style low-rise curtain that only lets you see each other’s lower torso and hands. Frankly not sure what’s the point (making sure the desk-attending nurse doesn’t know you are the one with gonorrhea even though every other patient in the examination room is likely to find out?).

Anyway, that’s roughly it for my exciting morning among the sick and the old (mostly the old, actually… I swear, I was not only the only paleskin miles around, but I must also have been the only non-professional there, who hadn’t witnessed Perry’s landing in Yokosuka….). By all means, don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime tourism opportunity next time you are in Japan.


  1. As a user of JHI for the last 11+ years, i can honestly say i haven’t had any nasty experiences. I wouldn’t describe my experiences as pleasant – but then again, when is a visit to the doctor EVER pleasant?
    Have had some bizarre experiences though…
    The first one involved me with toncilitis (how the hell do you spell it?) and the doctor telling me in his broekn english not to take a bus. Took me 2 days to work out he meant ‘bath’ (in those 2 days i convinced myself that i was highly contagious & couldn’t go in crowded buses…)
    The bizarrest moment though, goes to my ex-gynaecologist. During my routine ‘bits check’, she told me that i had very healthy eggs & asked me if i would like a photo of them. WTF???? What on earth would i do with a photo of my eggs? Scare away potential boyfriends? (“Hey, i have healthy eggs; want to fertilise them?”)

    But yeah, while not the best in the world for openess & privacy, Japan definitely isn’t the worst place for health care.

  2. Yea… I didn’t get to experience the whole wacky Engrish hijinx thing, as it was pretty clearly indicated to me by phone that Japanese-speaking wasn’t optional.

    Also I’m sure you’ll know of what I mean when I say that the desk-attending nurse literrally *resumed breathing* only upon my somewhat positive answer to the worriedly-asked question: “Japanese OK?”…

    But despite my initial worries, the language part went perfectly smooth, in no small part I think thanks to the utter absence of any remotely technical interaction: “look at the bright spot over there”, “push that button”, “please stand there” (and perhaps “there is something wrong, can I talk to the adult in charge of your person”) is really the full extent of what one needs to know to successfully breeze through a Japanese hospital visit.

  3. Heh, i was going to mention that tuberculosis wasnt as unusual as you might think in Japan, and provide a link to MisSin’s blog… It was funny to scroll down and then see that she was the furst commenter, but then that comment was perhaps before her man’s TB diagnosis, since she didnt mention it…?

  4. I have heard enough horrorstories about healthcare. Japan is very modern, but about such a routine health check i am very disaponted ^^
    I heard the japenese drink more and more milk todays…
    TB, BSE tests and so on should be in their standart-check xD

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