Japan Diaries Day 7 – Medicine & Doctors in Japan


After not feeling so well on Wednesday, I was convinced by my fiancé to take it easy and hang out at his apartment on Thursday.



Since I still wasn’t feeling 100%, we spent Thursday watching movies, taking care of the dogs, and then we went to the drug store to get some medicine. When you travel to a different country, the medicines available are usually different than your home country. This means that the symptoms the medicines treat and the strength with which they treat them may be different.

Disclaimer: The following are my personal experiences and opinions, are not intended to be medical advice, and are not intended to treat or diagnose anything!

Usually, both over-the-counter and prescription medicine in Japan have a lower strength than similar medicine available in the US. If used properly according to dosing instructions, prescription medicine from Japan is effective and comparable to prescriptions in the US. I found that some of the medicines that I needed to go to the doctor for in Japan were medicines that were available over the counter in the US. They are also generally a lot more strict about legal prescription drugs in Japan than in the US. Illegal drugs? That’s a big no-no. Don’t even think about it because Japan is very strict about illegal drugs and you can be punished harshly.

Bringing Medicine into Japan

If you have prescription drugs, I recommend that you bring them with documentation just in case the immigration station has questions about them. English documentation is fine. If you have especially strong prescription drugs with components that can be used in making illegal drugs, you might want to research the Japanese immigration stance on these drugs. If they are prescribed by a doctor they should be fine, but if you have large numbers of prescriptions you should be prepared to answer questions about them just in case. Note: Medical marijuana is not legal in Japan.

If you have a favorite over-the-counter cold medicine, allergy medicine, etc., you should probably bring it to Japan. The Japanese versions of these may not work the way you expect them to, and you might not find the relief you expect.

Going to the Doctor in Japan

If you are living in Japan as a student (e.g. study abroad) you are included in the national health care, and can go to the doctor without having to pay high fees (yay national health care!). You can even go to the ER, for example, if you get hit in the nose by a soccer ball. You have to pay a small fee, but it can be as little as ¥3000 (around $25) for the ER. If you get sick, I recommend taking advantage of the health care and going to the doctor because they can give you medicine that will effectively treat your symptoms. If you rely on friends, they may have recommendations for over-the-counter medicines, but they are not doctors and over-the-counter medicine may not be able to provide the relief of all your symptoms.

If you are visiting Japan and get sick, you will have to pay a fee since you do not have national health insurance. I paid around ¥4000 ($35) for the visit, and ¥2000 ($15) for prescriptions. This is for a common cold with IV drip, so this is not so bad and might be comparable to health insurance co-pays. But for Japanese people, this is really expensive for treating a common cold! I personally recommend travel insurance, because it usually provides reimbursement for any hospital trips you may need, including ER trips. Just make sure to receive and save receipts, prescriptions, and diagnoses in writing to submit later.

In Japan there are both large hospitals and small, local clinics. I’ve had positive experiences at both. When I have a cold, I prefer the local clinics because the doctors have a friendlier bedside manner. They know their patients well, and so they are more friendly and congenial. The two clinics I’ve been to both had doctors who spoke some English, including reading journals like the New England Journal of Medicine. Why is this helpful? You can tell them your symptoms in English and they can usually understand without much interpretation. When I thought I had a broken nose, I went to the larger hospital because it was late and the ER was the only place open. I had to have an X-ray, so the doctor had to ask me if I was pregnant. I didn’t know the word in Japanese, nor did my teammates, and the doctor didn’t know the English word (it’s ninshinchuu 妊娠中 in Japanese). After an interesting pantomime, I finally was able to understand. At the local clinic, the doctor was able to ask me if I wanted an IV drip in English, since I didn’t know the Japanese word (it’s tenteki 点滴).

When you get a prescription from a Japanese doctor, you will usually get tablets or pills that are in blister packs with a specific number of doses. You also get a paper that tells you what the medicine is, when and how to take it, with a photo of the medicine so that you don’t get confused. For example, my prescription was for 2 tablets and 1 powder after every meal for 5 days. Japanese doctors also often prescribe Chinese medicine in the form of powder, which usually isn’t a lot of fun to take, even with lots of water. Everything is in Japanese so interpreting it can be difficult, because some of the prescription names are from English, some are generic Japanese names, and some are Chinese medicine names.


Japanese prescription medicine varieties
including drug store package (bottom left)
and instructions (top right)

Drug Stores

When we were at the drug store I asked my fiancé to recommend some medicine, and the medicine he picked had the strongest medicinal odor possible, so much that I could even smell it from the outside of the package. I asked him if he was sure that there wasn’t a similar medicine with a less medicinal odor, to which he replied that he trusted the strongest medicinal odor to be the most powerful medicine. When I compared ingredients between that and a less potent, similar medicine, they weren’t much different, one just happened to be a more palatable version of the potent one. This is what I mean about friend’s recommendations… preferences vary, and people are more likely to recommend their favorite medicine.

Medicine labels and names in drug stores are primarily in Japanese, so picking out a medicine can be complicated. Using English terms and pantomimes for symptoms with drug store clerks can be frustrating for both parties, and even with a dictionary it can be difficult to determine if you are asking for the right medicine. This is why I recommend going to the doctor if it’s serious, or bring your own favorite medicine for common ailments you might get while travelling.

I hope these tips are helpful! Getting sick in a different country can be scary, but being prepared can make it less scary.

Have you been sick in Japan, or a different country where you didn’t speak the language well? How did you handle it?

Next Up: Japan Diaries Day 8 – Haircut in Japan & My Fiancé’s School Reunion

Japan Diaries 2014

5 thoughts on “Japan Diaries Day 7 – Medicine & Doctors in Japan

  1. I hadn’t thought of what it might be like to get sick and not have the U.S. Navy to turn to. Very interesting post, thank you. National health insurance – it’s nice to hear Japan doctors and clinics/ER’s run effectively. From what I have heard national health care in the UK is a nightmare.


    • It’s comforting to have an understanding of the healthcare system when you are away from your home country! To be fair I have heard stories about the ER being inefficient in Japan, but when I went to the ER in not such a big city I was the only one because it was so late, so they were quite efficient!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. As you are from the US it means that the travel insurance is enough in case you get sick in another country like Japan and need to go to hospital? I am from both Finland and Germany with both having national health insurance for everyone. In Finland for example I just needed to apply for a travel insurance card from the government and they gave it to me for free so I am insured duing my travels 🙂


    • National health insurance is really lovely, isn’t it? The US health care benefits vary with what type of coverage you have. My university’s health care will reimburse for some portions of hospital visits, but with travel insurance I also got benefits such as refund for delayed flights, hotel stays, etc., and for some of the more grisly things (like repatriation of remains). Also, Japanese hospitals usually want to see some verified proof of insurance before you are treated since you are not covered by national health care, so if you have an international plan it is more likely to be accepted by the doctors than the US card (or so I’ve heard).


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