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Cross-cultural communiqué: Drugging yourself in Japan
September 24, 2012 / 10:21 AM / 5 years ago

Cross-cultural communiqué: Drugging yourself in Japan

(This is an edited excerpt from “Culture Shock! Japan” by P. Sean Bramble, published by Marshall Cavendish International. Any opinions expressed are the author’s own.)

An employee wearing a Japanese happi coat with letters reading, "big sale," works at a drug store in Tokyo March 8, 2012. JREUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

( - Compared to where you’re from, you will probably find chemists in Japan to be wanting. Most people go to hospitals in search of serious medicine; by contrast, chemists sell a very limited supply of over-the-counter medicines along with a large variety of herbal remedies

I try to stock up on Western medicines each time I return home: aspirin, Tylenol and the like.

If you have any personally prescribed medicines, including birth control pills, make sure you bring a note from your doctor in case customs have a question. Almost any medicine for personal consumption should be OK, however. I would also recommend bringing a comprehensive medical encyclopaedia with you if you plan to stay for any length of time. That way you can be sure to have a fair understanding of your problem even if the doctor cannot explain it to you.


Along with the aforementioned herbal medicines, there are other alternatives to Western hospital care. Acupuncture is a highly respected practice which many people find helpful, particularly for joint and muscle pain. The treatment may not provide a permanent cure, but it certainly does provide relief for many patients. Other available treatments include chiropractic and shiatsu massage, which is wonderfully therapeutic.

N.B. There are many massage clinics that practice shiatsu and other forms of massage. Some of these, however, are of the dodgy variety; if a clinic only keeps daylight hours, odds are it’s legitimate.


For initial consultation regarding a malady, all you need to do at a clinic is show up - you virtually never need to make an appointment. Any subsequent visits will require an appointment.

The bad points… well, where do I begin? For starters, a lot of hospitals that bill themselves in locally prepared publications as being ‘English friendly!’ may not actually be so upon arrival.

Additionally, unless you wind up making an appointment at an upmarket clinic (easily identified by the cute bric-a-brac decorating a very new building), it is likely that you will not have a separate examination room. I visited one ear, nose and throat specialist and I thought I’d accidentally wandered into a queue for army recruits. Two lines of patients led to the doctor seated in the middle, who would gesture for one patient to sit down and prepare himself while he used his swivel chair to whip around and examine the other patient.

Other problems that you might face include:

Over-prescription of drugs

Many doctors run clinics which have some sort of connection with the next-door chemist. Sometimes the doctor himself operates the drug-dispensing chemist. Either way, too many doctors wind up prescribing unnecessary antibiotics for viral infections, or worse.

Incorrect dosages

The prescribed dosage may have no connection as to what is required for optimal treatment. You may have to check your own resources as to what might be the optimal dosage.

Lack of information

Generally speaking, chemists will group your medicines into different bags, i.e. the medicine in this bag should be taken once a day, the medicine in that bag should be taken twice a day, etc. There is no information that is provided in Japanese, let alone English, as to the name of the medicine, the size of the dosage, side effects or any number of routine answers to questions you might have. If that troubles you, get the doctor to answer your questions before you head off to the prescription counter.


Ambulances have some life-saving equipment, but ambulance crews are a long way from acting like paramedics in other countries. Many of them have the attitude of ‘wait until we get to the hospital and the doctor can check you.’ Many Japanese who have a medical emergency choose to take a taxi to the hospital instead; taxi drivers are probably more aggressive than ambulance drivers, and the patient or his family can choose which hospital to be taken to.

("Culture Shock! Japan" can be ordered here <>)

Editing by Peter Myers

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