Healthcare in Japan

I’m originally from America.

I remember one time being really sick and going to a hospital while I still lived there. I listed my symptoms to the nurse. She listened patiently, and the first words out of her mouth after that were, “What is your insurance?”

I learned from an early age that insurance coverage matters far more than whatever ails you. I also learned that you only should go see your doctor, go to urgent care or a hospital if you are in dire need. Otherwise, over-the-counter drugs available at pharmacies are your way of patching up whatever’s wrong.

Moving to Japan, I carried the fear of being charged through the roof for medical help with me. For the first few years here I desperately tried to stay away from doctors. I just didn’t have the money I thought would be required to see one, even though I did have health insurance from Japan.

I only went when I really, really needed to. And each time, I would listen to the doctor rattle off things they needed done like blood tests or X-rays, and I would inwardly cringe. I wanted to always ask, “Is it really necessary?” It all sounded so insanely expensive.

Then I would get the bill, and the relief was overwhelming. It still is. A blood test and X-ray? Sometimes it’s cost me about 20 USD. Seeing the doctor? I’ve been paying an average of 10 USD.

Kids get it even better here. It depends on where you live, but where I live, it costs 3 USD for your child to see the doctor and get any test done the doctor thinks you need. Need an I.V. drip put in at the doctor’s office? That’ll be 3 USD. It also costs 3 USD per day to stay at a hospital. And all drugs prescribed by the doctor are free. This all lasts until, I think, the kid is in high school.

I still have a kind of PTSD I experience whenever I am about to see the bill for whatever medical services I just received. My heart quickens, my stomach drops, and I wonder if I’ll need to pull out the credit card. Whenever there’s an emergency, I still can’t just focus on the problem at hand; all I can think about is the cost.

A while back I got hit by a taxi and, mercifully, only sprained my ankle. The entire time I was at the hospital, all I could think about was, “How much is this going to cost me?” I couldn’t even think about how horrible it was being in a hit-and-run incident or how much my leg hurt. It was all about the cost in my head. That’s what the American medical system has done to me personally.

I’ve had people say, “Yeah it’s cheap but how long are the waits?” I’ve been here 12 years and can only speak to my own experience, but for me, it’s never been hard to book an appointment or just drop in and see the doctor. I’ve never made an appointment at my general doctor’s, and the wait for just showing up is, at most, an hour. At the hospital the wait can be about 3 hours at times, and my God some of the Japanese around me complain about it to no end.

For me, though, for the price I pay to get so much medical attention, I’d happily camp outside overnight.