What to Know Before Visiting a Doctor in Japan | What To Do If You Get Sick in Japan

what to know before visiting a doctor in japan

Need to visit a doctor in Japan? Here’s what to know before visiting a doctor in Japan! All the important information you need before you step into a Japanese hospital or clinic!

Getting sick can be worrying altogether, but that happening in a country you’re new to, in a place where you can’t communicate properly can be really taxing (literally also).

Here are a few tidbits of knowledge to arm yourself with before going for a doctor’s visit in Japan.

Language and cultural understanding of the medical healthcare system in Japan can be confusing.

When you’re visiting a doctor in Japan (hopefully you won’t have to), make sure you have this checklist in hand: knowledge about health insurance, some useful hospital lingo to describe what’s happening to you, and a list of places where you can go. 

It’s always safe to be prepared, isn’t it? Below you’ll find most of the necessary information you’ll need to get through a medical crisis in Japan.

Before you panic (because that’s never good in medical emergencies: remember that we live in the age of a masterful Google translate).

What to Know Before Visiting a Doctor in Japan

A Brief Guide to Japanese Healthcare System and Health Insurance

The first thing we’ll talk about in this guide to what to know before visiting a doctor in Japan is about the health insurance!

The Japanese health insurance is a bit extensive and detailed. 

The first thing you need to know is that if you’re staying in Japan for more than 3 months, it is necessary that you enroll in the system even if you got yourself travel insurance or are covered by health insurance back home. 

The reason being, most hospitals in Japan don’t accept those.

If you’ve entered Japan as a full-time employee, or are a resident of Japan with a full-time job, you’ll be enrolled in the shakai hoken  (社会保険) of the company. 

In this case, your pension and your health insurance are automatically deducted from your stipend.

In the case that you’re self-employed, work less than 30 hours a week or have no job, you must enroll yourself into Japan’s National Health Insurance — kokumin kenko hoken (国民健康保険). All you need to do is go to the city hall and fill the relevant forms. 

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Typically, being insured for health conditions in Japan means having to pay only 30% of your bill. The rest 70% of your bill is covered by your insurance. 

When you leave the house, always make sure to carry your health insurance card in your wallet, or the next thing you know you’ll be emptying every last penny from your wallet. Healthcare in Japan can be pretty expensive.

Although that is true, the premium received on Japanese hospital bills changes depending on your age:

  • For infants, 80% of their bill is covered by the insurance
  • For children of the school-going age upto 69 years of age, 70% is covered.
  • Adults between the ages of 70-74 only pay 10% of their bills,
  • For the peak working population between the ages of 40 to 65, those of whom are residents, it is mandatory to pay 2% of the bill as a nursing care fee.

These are some of the things covered by the insurance in Japan:

  • General medical check-ups
  • Preventative care
  • Injury due to an accident
  • Hospital stays, including some meals
  • Prescription medication
  • Acupuncture and/or other therapy prescribed by a doctor
  • Birth and prenatal costs
  • Blood transfusion
  • Dental care

What is not covered by the insurance

In the case of mental health conditions, buying contraception and other checkups that you seem needful but are not necessary, you’ll be charged the full bill as they are not covered by the insurance.

Basic Terminology to Know Before Visiting a Doctor in Japan

The next thing to discuss in this guide to what to know before visiting a doctor in Japan is the basic terminologies you’re going to need to communicate with the doctor or hospital staff.

The first thing you should know about the healthcare vocabulary in Japan is that the term for hospital or a doctor’s clinic is the same. The term “byōin” encompasses large and small healthcare-providing establishments. 

When you ask for an oisha san,  you’re looking for a doctor. Just mention any of these two terms to your taxi driver and you’ll get to the nearest hospital.

Considering the state of Japanese hospitals, at least most of them, not knowing Japanese or being able to describe your condition or ailment in the language can leave you at a disadvantage. They won’t understand you and might diagnose you with something you’ve never even heard of.

Here’s some basic terminology you should equip yourself with before a visit to a doctor in Japan. It will help you get through the day at the hospitals there.

Describing the symptoms:

a coldkaze
runny nosehanamizu

Describing how bad the pain is:

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a bit/a littlechotto

Describing when it all began:

this morningkesa
last nightkinō no yoru
the day before yesterdayototoi

Minor Injuries

Next, in this guide to what to know before visiting a doctor in Japan, I want to discuss some common ailments you might experience during your time in Japan.

Apart from some of the symptoms I have mentioned above, Japanese hospitals see this common list of minor ailments that may happen to you while you’re there.

  • Flu: Infruenza can be experienced in Japan during early winters and late autumns. You can usually just go to the hospital and receive the annual flu vaccine. Just ask for the infruenza yobou sesshu.
  • Food poisoning: Shokuchuudoku (食中毒) is not that common, but if you’re new to Japanese food, it’s always ready to be prepared.
  • Urinary Infection: Boukouen, (膀胱炎). As a foreigner, you might be used to a higher dosage of medicines than the ones you get here. Therefore it is possible that if you’re afflicted with a urine infection, the light dosage that is common in Japan might not work on you.

In Case of Emergencies

Next, very important, this guide to what to know before visiting a doctor in Japan will discuss what to do in case of emergencies

When you’re in a situation where you’re facing a medical emergency in Japan, remember that the number in Tokyo for ambulances is 119.

Another thing to remember is that the ambulances in Tokyo are handled by the fire department, so you will have to distinctly point out that you’re looking for an ambulance  (kyuukyuusha, 救急車) and not reporting a fire (kaji, 火事).

The ambulances there are free, but you’ll have to be prepared in terms of what you’ll say when they take your call with regards to landmarks around you and what exactly happened.

For such reasons, the Tokyo fire department has even published an online guide that describes everything you might need to say during such emergencies.

Where can you find English Hospitals

If you can’t speak or understand Japanese pay special attention to this part of the guide to what to know before visiting a doctor in Japan!

If you live in a relatively large city like Osaka or Tokyo, finding a doctor that can communicate in English shouldn’t be a problem. These doctors often tend to publish a website in English as well. 

But from experience and all the stories I’ve heard, I have often come to a worrisome dilemma. Doctor’s that speak English are not always good doctors.  So, if you have something like a common cold that bugs you, feel free to go to one of those.

But if you have something serious that requires expertise, I’d recommend going to a specialist in the field (quite often can only speak in Japanese).

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Nonetheless, there’s an expat community in Japan that has a recommended and approved list of English-speaking health organizations that can assist in times of medical needs.


Insurance can be an issue when you’re from out of the country. Not many hospitals accept international health insurance. But there is one such Luke’s International Hospital, that not only accepts international health insurance but also has various English-speaking doctors with expertise in various disciplines.

General Information:

If you’re looking for information about what to do, where to do it, look for a specialist for your particular condition, Japan Healthcare Info can assist in that regard. On top of all that, they also help you make appointments, find the right doctor for you and give you recommendations for places where you can receive treatment in English. 

Primary care: 

Dr. Joe Kurosu is the Primary Care Shimokitazawa is the most common recommendation I’ve unanimously heard from the expat community. He is bilingual and has a reputed degree in medicine from Stanford. If you’re having health issues while you’re in Japan, I’d recommend stopping by here first and then getting a foreigner-friendly recommendation from Dr. Kurosu.

Sexually Transmitted Infections Testing:

Since this is not covered by health insurance, local or international, testing for STDs and STIs can be quite expensive. You don’t need an additional expense while you’re traveling.

You can head to the Shinjuku City Public Health Center for a free check-up on Thursdays. Make sure to find out which Thursdays because it happens only twice a month. Moreover, the center is multilingual. The testing is done in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai.

Final Thoughts

Remember that you’re in a place that’s unfamiliar to you. It’s normal to have questions and in fact, it is better that you ask them as much as you have in mind to be clear of any discomfort you may face, mental and /or physical.

True, it is uncommon that someone in Japan would challenge the doctor’s recommendation and diagnosis, but if you have doubts in mind, go for a second opinion and weigh all the options you have.

After all, it is better to voice your concerns rather than face issues physically while burning a hole in your pocket.

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