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Navigating Healthcare as Foreigners in Japan

Japan has a well-developed healthcare system that provides high-quality medical services to citizens and foreigners residing there. However, you can’t benefit from it if you don’t know the system well. This article will help you to understand some important points about healthcare in Japan for foreigners.

Medical Institutions

Japan has a wide range of medical institutions, including hospitals, clinics, and specialized facilities. The healthcare quality in Japan is generally excellent, with well-trained medical professionals and state-of-the-art equipment. Medical institutions in Japan are required by law to be run as non-profits and must be owned and operated by physicians.

General practitioners are not common in Japan. If you are sick, you won’t need a referral and can immediately go to specialists in a hospital or clinic. Japan also has no family doctor concept, so you can change doctors whenever you need to see one.

Appointment System

Most medical institutions don’t require appointments before visiting. However, some facilities need you to call and book an appointment in advance, while others offer online appointment systems. It’s a good idea to check the specific requirements of the medical institution you plan to visit.

Access to Care

Foreigners have the same access to healthcare facilities and services as Japanese citizens. You can visit any hospital or clinic that accepts National Health Insurance, which is the majority of medical institutions in the country. In emergencies, you can go to the nearest hospital regardless of whether they accept NHI.

Medical Costs

While the National Health Insurance system helps cover medical expenses, you are still responsible for paying some of the costs. It is advisable to have some funds set aside to cover these expenses. Additionally, certain treatments or medications may not be fully covered by insurance, so clarifying the costs with your healthcare provider in advance is important.

Prescription Medications

If you have a regular prescription, you can visit a pharmacy in Japan to obtain your medication. Sometimes, your prescribed medication may not be available in Japan or have a different name. It is recommended to carry your medical records and prescriptions in English or have a translated copy to facilitate communication with healthcare professionals.

Health Insurance Coverage from Home Country

Before traveling to Japan, it’s essential to check if your home country has a healthcare agreement with Japan. Some countries have reciprocal healthcare agreements, allowing their citizens to receive emergency medical treatment at a reduced cost or for free. Confirm with your local healthcare authorities to understand the coverage you may have while in Japan.

It’s important to research and familiarize yourself with Japan’s specific healthcare regulations and practices. Consider obtaining travel health insurance to provide additional coverage for any medical expenses not covered by the National Health Insurance system.

National Health Insurance (NHI)

Foreigners residing in Japan for more than three months must enroll in the National Health Insurance system. It covers various healthcare services, including consultations, hospitalizations, surgeries, medications, and preventive care.

Your company or school usually will manage your insurance application when you come to Japan. If not, you can apply when registering your resident status at the ward office. Upon registration, you will receive a health insurance card, also known as the “kenko hokensho,” which you should carry with you at all times.

Health insurance card (Photo:

National Health Insurance premiums are determined based on your income from the previous year. The premiums are usually paid monthly or quarterly and can be paid at a local municipal office or through bank transfer. The exact premium rates vary depending on the municipality but generally range from a few thousand yen to tens of thousands per month. Students usually pay around 2,000 yen monthly.

The insurance typically covers 70% to 90% of medical expenses, with the remaining portion being the patient’s responsibility. The coverage includes doctor visits, hospitalizations, surgeries, medications, and various medical procedures. However, certain treatments, elective procedures, and non-essential services may not be fully covered.

The remaining medical costs are known as co-payment or “shiryo-kiryo.” The co-payment rates depend on age, income, and the type of medical service received. The co-payment is usually paid directly at the medical facility after receiving the services.

While the National Health Insurance system provides basic coverage, some individuals opt for additional private health insurance to supplement their healthcare needs. Private insurance can help cover the remaining portion of medical expenses not covered by NHI, offer more comprehensive coverage, or provide additional benefits such as international coverage or higher reimbursement rates.

Language Barriers in Japanese Health Care

While Japan has a well-developed healthcare system, language barriers can be a challenge for foreigners seeking medical care.

Some doctors and medical staff in larger cities may have a basic understanding of English, but it cannot be assumed that all healthcare providers will be fluent in English. The level of English proficiency among medical professionals can vary significantly.

If you have very low Japanese skills, you may need to go to a big or international hospital. Many major hospitals in Japan have international departments or clinics that cater to foreign patients. These departments often have staff members who can speak multiple languages, including English. They can help with the interpretation, translation of medical documents and communication between the patient and healthcare providers.

The other option is to find medical institutions in Japan that provide professional interpreters or translation services for non-Japanese speakers. These interpreters can accompany you during your medical appointments to facilitate communication. Some doctors also have translation devices, although you must speak super clearly for the machine to understand you.

If you want to go to smaller clinics with neither option available, here are some tips to overcome language barriers:

  • Carry essential medical documents, such as medical history, prescriptions, and allergies, in English or translate them into Japanese. This can ensure that healthcare professionals have the necessary information to provide appropriate care. You won’t need to explain things verbally.

  • Preparing a medical phrasebook with common phrases and medical terms in Japanese can also be useful in communicating basic information about your symptoms or medical history. The regular translation app may not work 100% because of the medical terms.

  • If possible, having a Japanese-speaking friend or acquaintance accompany you to medical appointments can greatly assist in overcoming language barriers. They can help with translation, understanding instructions, and clarifying any concerns. However, it means your friend must wholly accompany you through the medical process.

  • Before seeking medical care in Japan, it’s beneficial to research and identify healthcare facilities that are more accustomed to dealing with non-Japanese speakers. These facilities may be more likely to provide language support or have staff members with better English proficiency.

Remember, while language barriers can pose challenges, it is essential to prioritize your health and seek medical attention when needed. Communicate your concerns, be patient, and utilize available resources to ensure effective communication between you and your healthcare provider.


As one of the countries with the longest life expectancy in the world, Japan undoubtedly has a fantastic healthcare system. As a foreign resident, you need to understand the system so that you are ready for it if something happens.


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