Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dental Care in Japan

Photo courtesy of

歯肉炎 (しにくえん) - gingivitis
虫歯 (むしば) - cavity
歯医者 (はいしゃ) - dentist
充填 (じゅうてん) - filling

Familiar with all those terms? Some of them? Recognize the kanji, but wouldn't know them out of context?

Welcome to my world.

If you're a member of the "stay a year and no more in Japan" crowd, this information probably isn't for you; you can time a visit to the dentist when returning home for the holidays or after you leave for good.

However, if you're planning to stay in Nippon for the time being, hold a job with medical benefits, and pay close attention to your health, you might want to read a little further.

Seeing a doctor in Japan usually isn't a problem if you speak Japanese. But for those of us who are still learning conversation skills, and have little in the way of medical terminology in our vocabulary, even seeing a dentist can pose a challenge:

"You have gingivitis, a chipped tooth, and two cavities. I'll need to take x-rays and perform some tests; what kind of fillings would you prefer?"

This being the case, I sought an English-speaking dentist. In my corner of the world, I had thought I might have been out of luck, but fortune and a Google search directed me to Access Dental Clinic and Access Dental Counseling:

Although there is a clinic set up in Kagoshima city, the primary purpose behind the website is to offer counseling to foreigners seeking dental care all over Japan, including information on tooth disease, gum care, and cleanings. This group of doctors offers free interpretation services (in person if they operate in your area), comparisons of the Japanese dental system with that of other countries, and relevant insurance and payment information.

Apparently, if you choose to pay through an insurance company, you must cover 30% of the cost at the time of the appointment. Although this doesn't sound too bad, the company requires the dentist to adhere to strict guidelines on the tests performed and examinations conducted, even when the doctor concludes they are superfluous.

The result for a standard cleaning, no problems requiring treatment? 3,500 yen without insurance, 2,370 with insurance (including a barrage of procedures).

I didn't really note any differences in the cleaning, except the hygienist used a purple dye which stayed on my tongue for the rest of the day, and the doc recommended I use small, "better" Japanese toothbrushes rather than big, clumsy American ones; which is true, as it's difficult to find large toothbrushes here.

Every six months, or every 25,000 chews. Proper maintenance is key.


Ali la Loca said...

I religiously go to the dentist every 6 months, as I'm super scared of what will happen if I don't. I've kept my US dentist, but now realize I'll have to make the big switch to a South African dentist (I prefer to keep an English-speaking doctor, even though my Portuguese is perfectly fluent). I'm also going to have to "switch" over all of my other doctors as well...

Perhaps this is a milestone in the life of an expat?

ターナー said...

Definitely. It's just not something you think about until an emergency crops up or you realize maintenance is due. I wish I had researched more of the resources in my area before it became a pressing issue.

tornados28 said...

Japanese people seem to take care of their teeth well brushing and flossing and yet I see so many Japanese with terrible teeth. I wonder why?

ターナー said...

One of the things I mentioned to the dentist - there's not always flouride in the drinking water here.

ThePenguin said...

Having not been to a dentist in the English-speaking world for 15 years or more, "gingivitis" is one of those words I've seen occasionally but had no idea what it meant until I saw the kanji for it here. Not that I knew the Japanese word though.

I'm paying €65 (about 10,000 yen) next week for a standard cleaning here in Germany. Japan sounds a lot better value for money (though here in Germany my health insurance covers 100% of essential treatment, minus some one-off administrative fees).