Key Points to Understand the Japanese Health System | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

Key Points to Understand the Japanese Health System

By Peggy Mar 21, 2018

This post is also available in: Russian Spanish Vietnamese

Have you ever been sick in Japan and wondered what to do? Maybe right now you are preparing to come to Japan for the first time. As an expat, it’s challenging to get used to the medical system in a different country from the start. I know! I have been there. This guide will help you to understand some of the basics of the medical care system in Japan and what to do when the need arises.



Look around: at the airport, bus stations, trains, department stores, it’s like a sea of (what seems to be) the surgical masks on peoples’ faces. Starting from babies to the elderly, you might look around and wonder “are we at the height of a major medical health crisis?”.

You can find them at any store (from a convenience market to a department store). They are available in all kinds of styles, even containing some popular Japanese characters or sold as a cute “kawaii” fashion accessory to purchase.

Ok, you might be thinking that winter is over and spring just started. So, is the cold and flu season still rampant? Are all these people ill? If so, shouldn’t they be home or in the hospital being treated for something contagious?! This is the thoughts of international people living in Japan that are not used to seeing people wearing masks on their faces except the clinic or hospital.

Let me set your mind at ease, not all of these people are ill. In fact, in many cases, the opposite might be true. In Japan (as in some other countries), people try to prevent exposure to illnesses by wearing masks in public. Due to the close proximity of others in public areas or transportation, this is one way for people to help keep themselves healthy. Of course, if a person has any health symptoms, they try to be polite and respect others’ health by wearing a mask to prevent others’ from getting ill.


If you haven’t been in Japan from March-May, this information will be helpful. These particular months are common for allergies. This is another reason for people to wear masks. So, don’t be alarmed if you see many people wearing masks during the spring season too.

Hand Sanitizer

If you think it is healthy to use hand sanitizer or an alcohol-based antibacterial cleaner as a prevention method, you might be surprised to find that Japanese people tend not to use this option in public (as often as other countries). Therefore, you might see Japanese people feeling surprised if you use it in public places like a bus, train, restaurant or a venue area.

In contrast, in the United States, you will find it common that department and grocery stores provide antibacterial wipes at the front of the store to clean the customers’ shopping carts. Parents and individuals alike are conscientious in cleaning their hands with hand sanitizer (if not in the area, then at a restroom, they wash their hands with soap and water). Schools provide teachers with antibacterial wipes (brands like Lysol or Clorax) to clean their classrooms, and students are asked to wipe their desks on a daily basis.

If you want to buy an antibacterial cleaner in Japan, you will need to go to the health section of a department store (like Saty (Aeon Co.)) or at a pharmacy “yakkyoku”. It might be more accessible to purchase in your home country (rather than in Japan) to bring it with you to Japan.




薬局 = pharmacy

薬局 is the Japanese kanji for a pharmacy in Japan. The first letter薬 means medicine. You can often notice it on the top (or the front) of any pharmacy.

In the United States, a pharmacy tends to sell medicine over-the-counter or prescribed by a doctor.

In Japan, we go to pharmacies “yakkyoku” to purchase all types of health-related items. This is a separate/independent store that is typically small but sells not only over-the-counter medicine but other items like toilet paper, tissues, etc. In some department stores, there is a small health section. However, Japanese people tend to go to pharmacies for those items.


Some Common Over-the-Counter Medicines/Items

This is an ibuprofen pain reliever for headaches, fever, migraines and women’s menstrual relief.

Aspirin medicine (the same brand as in the U.S.)

Japanese children’s tylenol: contains acetaminophen

Hie-Pita:  Cools down your fever. This is a popular product that works very well.

Ice pillow: It is an “old school” product for reducing fevers, but it really does work. It is reusable, so you can keep it whenever you have a fever.

Aneton: a cough medicine.

Seki-dome syrup:  This is a children’s cough medicine.


Note: U.S. products such as the Tylenol brand are becoming increasingly more accessible to buy in Japan. So, you might recognize some of the products available even if the box is written in Japanese.


Getting A Prescription Filled (Issued in Your Home Country)

Not all pharmacies in Japan fill prescriptions from a doctor. You need to ask first if that is something the pharmacy are certified to do. Many times, prescriptions from a doctor are filled in the clinic or hospital, or often the hospital will recommend a nearby pharmacy for you.

Here is some very important information:

  • Some over-the-counter medicines/drugs are illegal in Japan. Please research and check the list before your visit. This does include some common medications (i.e. for allergies).


  • Some drugs that are prescribed in other countries are illegal in Japan.


  • If your prescription can be filled in Japan, you can bring one month’s supply of the drug for personal use. If you are planning on staying longer in Japan, you will need a “yakkan shoumei” in advance. This is an import certificate approved by pharmaceutical inspectors appointed by the Japanese government. Make sure you get this approved prior to traveling/arriving in Japan.


  • If you have an injectable drug (like an insulin pump) or other medical equipment, you will need also to get the import certificate.




If you have an emergency and need to call an ambulance, dial 119. Most operators can understand and speak basic English if you speak slowly.

Japan Helpline (0120 461 997) offers 24-hour English-language emergency services, including phone support for health questions and minor injuries.

How to recognize the Japanese Kanji for a Hospital or Clinic

病院 = clinic or hospital in Japanese.  It depends on the size, but both a clinic and a hospital takes walk-in appointments.


Going to the Hospital

Days/Times: The average open time varies. Some areas are 24/7; others open during certain days/hours. For non-emergencies, hospital waiting rooms generally open around 7-8 AM. However, this is on a first-come-first-served basis. So, people get there early to get their appointment time – usually arriving before the time the waiting room opens.

Appointment times are issued by a machine. You should select the correct hospital department you need to visit based on your symptoms. The minimum waiting time is usually one hour or more, so please be patient. *Depending on the number of people in front of you, it might take several hours to be checked by a doctor. Bring something to do while you wait.*

If it is your first time to visit the hospital, you will most likely need to fill out some introductory paperwork and pay an extra fee. Then, you will be issued a patient card. In many hospitals, you can insert the patient card into the machine and it will print out your information. So, next time you need to go to the hospital again it will help you pass the reception desk area.

Once your examination is finished, you will get your prescription (if any) and your bill. You will need to go to the “cashier” and wait until they call your name. Then, you can pay the bill. If you get a prescription from a hospital, you give your prescription to the person at the counter. Then, you will wait until they call your name.

If it is a smaller clinic, you might need to get your prescription filled at a local pharmacy. If you know one in your area that can fill your prescription, that might be a convenient place to go.

Emergency Clinics


Average open time varies but usually between 8 AM-7/8 PM.

Check your area to see on which days/time clinics are open. Days/hours can vary depending on the region you live in. On the national holidays, you can expect clinics being closed. Some of them may be closed on Sundays. It’s best to do the research BEFORE you are ill so that you will be prepared (just in case).

Clinic staff in Japan takes a lunch (hour break) and closes the office/clinic. Therefore, the clinic will have certain morning and afternoon-evening hours. Usually, they are closed for up to two hours in the mid-part of the day. Again, check with your local clinic for the exact times.

Clinics do stay open in the evening to assist people who come after work. If you enter the clinic and complete the check-in process before the closing time, they will see you after the “posted” hours.

Note: Emergency clinics are also on a “first-come-first-served basis”, so be prepared to wait. There is no general practitioner, rather specialized departments/doctors. So, you will need to see a doctor that specializes (relates) to the symptoms of your illness.

What to Bring

Please bring your health insurance card and cash. If you don’t have a Japanese health insurance card (national health insurance card), please bring your home country’s insurance card.

It depends on the clinic, but it might save you paying the entire amount at the time of the visit. Generally, if you have Japanese national health insurance, you will pay 30% of the total cost. If you have other insurance coverage, it depends on what is accepted in Japan and what is covered.

How to Pay

It is best to be prepared to pay in cash (Yen). Credit cards are still not widely accepted. ATM machines can be usually found in larger hospitals, but not in smaller clinics. So, keep that in mind.

Visiting a clinic or pharmacy and not understanding the language or system can be challenging. You might not be able to read Japanese or know what to buy from the options provided. On top of that, not feeling well is worst. Sometimes, you rely on the medicine or remedies from your home country to feel better. I know! As a foreigner living in Japan, it’s one of the most challenging things for me to deal with. However, I hope this information will help you feel more comfortable about what to expect.

Good luck and stay healthy!


Peggy/ United States