Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The World of Japanese Medicine

Despite being an advanced nation that excels in robotic studies and science, Japan is often hilariously behind other industrialized countries.  I suppose it could be blamed on their supposed isolation (even though they're really not very isolated at all), or it could be their stubbornness (they really like to do shit their own way).  I have no idea what it is, but in many fields, the Japanese are inexplicably struggling about ten to fifteen years behind the Western world.

One of those fields is medicine.  Any foreigner who comes to Japan for an extended period of time has probably heard horror stories about Japanese doctors and dentists who still live in the dark ages and do horrible, barbaric treatments to their patients.  According to many foreigners, Japanese doctors don't listen to what their patients want, don't care what their patients want, aren't interested in how their patients feel, and don't even bother sanitizing before dealing with them.

Well, I've now been to a Japanese doctor and a Japanese dentist.  How do foreigners' horror stories hold up?

Let's talk about the dentist first.  I woke up in the middle of the night not too long ago with a strange pain in my cheek and under my jaw.  Some of the pain felt like it was in the root of one of my teeth (this is a pain I'm familiar with, having had twelve baby teeth pulled in my life, and having had all four wisdom teeth removed.  Seriously, people who make fun of Kyo's shark teeth, without proper dentistry, that would be me right now!).  I was immediately filled with dread.  What if I need a root canal...? I thought.  I've heard that's the worst thing to have done in Japan!

I've heard unbelievable stories.  If you get a root canal done in Japan, expect to have it done in a room with several other patients, with no anesthesia, and they won't do it all at once.  Expect to have to come back up to twelve times and go through the horror over and over again.  And there won't be music or TVs or distractions, and they'll laugh and hold you down if you scream.  I hadn't even just heard stories like that from foreigners, I even remember Toshiya from Dir en grey telling a horror story like that!

The worst part was that I would be going to what we around here call an "inaka dentist."  "Inaka" is a Japanese word meaning "rural town", but a lot of foreigners use it in a kind of derogatory fashion to mean, like, "backwaters hell-hole."  And, from what I'd heard, inaka dentists are the worst.  Most of them are old men who haven't opened a medical book in forty years (Japan doesn't require dentists to continue their education or update their practices). 

The only reason I was even going to an inaka dentist was because I asked one of the teachers at my school if they knew any good dentists, and that caused the school nurse to look up one I could walk to, and then the teacher made an appointment for me.  I was dreading it, but I thought if I went in fast enough, I could avoid a root canal procedure.

So how was it?

To be honest, I was completely taken by surprise.  When I walked in, the hygienists behind the counter were very young, and very friendly.  There was a TV on in the waiting room, and tons of children's toys for little kids to amuse themselves with.  I filled out some paperwork (and couldn't believe I could actually understand almost all of it.  Only skipped two questions), and was called in right away.

I continued to be surprised.  Although there weren't separate rooms for patients, each little area was completely separated by thick partitions, so you couldn't see any other patients at all.  This wasn't weird to me at all, because the dentist I used to see in America also separated patients by partitions, not rooms.  And each little patient area had its own flat-screen TV.  Sweet!  This felt like the complete opposite of what should be inside an inaka dentist's office!

Overall, it was a very positive experience.  They were very easy with me - even blowing the air on my arm first to show me what it would feel like - and they constantly made sure I was cool with everything they were doing before actually doing it.  They didn't do anything painful - just poked around to see if there was anything amiss.  Meanwhile, I had a nice TV to watch, and I didn't have to look awkwardly at any other patients.  Plus nothing hurt.  I'd heard stories about people being stabbed through the tongue just during the examination, but this particular hygienist was very gentle.  She brought over a detailed model of a mouth with teeth and told me she didn't see any cavities, so it was possible my back teeth were shifting into some other teeth and causing the pain.  I was very cool with this idea, because I freaking brush, floss, and use mouth wash, and the thought that one of my teeth had somehow rotted enough to need a root canal really pissed me off.  But if it was an orthodontia issue, I could deal with that.  Frankly, I was used to that.

Anyways, she could hardly back up her thoughts without a thorough examination, so they brought me into an X-ray room and took a shot of my mouth.  Then I only waited around for about ten minutes before the dentist himself showed up.  This is where it gets kind of funny.

For some reason, he kept trying to use English with me, even though it should've been overwhelmingly obvious by then that I do just fine in Japanese.  So he kept using Japanese, and then trying to clarify what he'd said in English, even if I was nodding understandingly.  Unfortunately, most of the English he was using was crap he'd obviously just looked up in a dictionary five minutes prior to seeing me, so... it was strange English, at best.  However, I was totally okay with this, because I prefer that the dentist try to make sure I understand, rather than just throwing me down and stabbing me in the face like Japanese dentists supposedly do.  If he had to baby me a little, so be it.  It went kinda like this...

Dentist: No cavity.  Understand?

Me: Okay.

Dentist: Is here [points at the gums on the model of the human mouth]

Me: Okay...

Dentist: Your face.  It has festered.

Me: !!!

Yes, I'm allowed to have Final Fantasy-style exclamation point dialogue.  Anyways, yeah, he told me my face festered.  What he meant was that I had an infection in my mouth, that unfortunately spread and wound up in my gums, which was why it hurt.  He said it probably hurt more during the night because I was lying right on it.  But the point I'm trying to make was that he at least cared that I fully understood the situation.  Even though I was foreign, he didn't just shrug and be like, "well, I'll just silently do what needs to be done, and she won't question me, cuz I'm awesome."  Cuz, uh, yeah, I've heard they do that.  Granted, the dentist spoke so fast I thought he was high, but I can understand that when you've got only one dentist and a whole bunch of patients waiting around at once, you can't really loiter.

Anyways, then I started thinking he would send me home and make me come back before actually doing anything done about the infection.  The reason Japanese dentists always make their patients come back a bunch of times is because they collect insurance money each time.  Thus, the more times a patient comes in, the more insurance money the dentist collects.  Dentists claim it's because patients can't handle a ton of dental work at once, but we all know that's bullshit.  There's no excuse for a patient coming in for a cleaning and only having the top teeth done, and then being sent home and forced to return for the bottom teeth.

Buuuut, I got lucky.  Right then and there, he cleaned up the area around my teeth, did some laser treatment on the infection, and put antibiotic around the area (or, according to him, "antibotic medicine."  I didn't have the heart to correct him).  Then he sent me home with instructions not to eat or drink for thirty minutes.  I did have to make an appointment to come back and have the infection cleaned and antibiotic-ed again, but I thought that was reasonable.

The best part is, the treatment worked.  My mouth hurt on and off for a couple more days (especially right after this one indies show, ow...), and then it was cured!  No pain at all, just like that!

What's more, they treated me nicely despite being stupid.  I walked in one day thinking it was my next appointment, but it turned out I had the wrong day.  Not only did they not laugh at me, the dentist was convinced that walking in on the wrong day was my indirect way of trying to tell him my face still hurt, and he got all worried and was even willing to treat me right then and there.  I assured him I was just an idiot, and promptly left.

I should add that each visit only cost me 800 yen!  And I only went in twice!  That's crazy cheap!

The point is, although I'm sure many dentists in Japan are essentially greedy face-butchers, you can never know for sure!  Sometimes, you might just find an extremely modern dentist's office with updated technology, a nice, patient staff, and flat-screen TVs.  My guess is, this dentist studied dentistry abroad at some point.  I've heard those guys are the ones who have their shit together.  So, I guess the lesson to take out of this is... ask around if you need a dentist in Japan.  Because some of them are very good, you just have to find them.

Even in the inaka.

And now for the flip-side!  An adventure in a Japanese hospital after hours!

So, long story short, I was chopping up some chicken for dinner and I put down the knife for a moment and reached for something on the counter.  Unfortunately, this knife was clearly designed by a four-year-old, and the knife has this weird little pointy part that sticks out towards the handle.  I somehow managed to gouge myself on it.  Now, this wouldn't have been a big deal - the cut was actually quite small - but it happened to cut the exact line where my finger bends at the joint.  The result was an unnecessarily deep cut that bled like a fountain and couldn't be closed without some kind of makeshift splint.

I waited around for an hour or so with a paper towel, but the damn thing never looked any better.  At that point, I went to a convenience store to buy some band-aids.  While there, I asked them if they new of any local clinics I could go to.  They told me everything was already closed (at fucking 6:00.  Fucking bullshit).  Feeling sorry for me, one of the ladies offered to help me put a band-aid on.  I shrugged and agreed, and accidentally got blood all over her, which is severely embarrassing.  She probably immediately went and got herself tested for AIDS, syphilis, and Gaijin-ism.  Anyways, I decided maybe the cut needed a stitch, so I called one of the English teachers at school and asked her if she knew where a clinic might be that's still open.

Naturally, she decided this was the time to panic, drive right over, and drive me to the hospital.  Which was probably very unnecessary, and also somewhat embarrassing.  Now, I'd like to give this hospital the benefit of the doubt - after all, this was their after-hours staff.  However, this sounds waaaay too much like so many other stories I've heard about doctors in Japan.  Even when it's not after 6:00.

So I came in, and a doctor saw me pretty quickly.  I was brought into a room where dozens of other patients were lying around looking miserable.  He sat me down and asked to see the cut.  I took off the band-aid, and nearly died of embarrassment.  The cut had pretty much stopped bleeding.  The doctor basically snorted and laughed at me.  He was immensely cocky for someone who looked about twenty-five.  But then, the moment he moved my finger to inspect it, the cut opened right back up and started bleeding.  Well, yeah, that's why I thought a doctor should look at it, duh.  Anyways, he never once sanitized anything, including the tools.  He didn't wash his hands.  And he didn't wear gloves.  Yup.  My wound was inspected by bare, unsanitary hands that were dealing with sick people mere moments ago.

Stay classy, Japan.

So he told me the cut wasn't deep enough for a stitch, but he could wrap it up for me.  So he grabbed this nasty, brown disinfectant, and dripped it into the wound, which hurt like a bitch and made me want to bite him right in his cocky face.  The fun part?  He spilled the disinfectant all over his laptop in the process, and then wiped it up with a tissue.  Genius.  Then he put tape along the length of my finger to seal the cut, and wrapped it up in gauze.  And told me not to take it off for two days.  Haha, yeah, fuck that.

So yeah, clearly this hospital is still operating in the Stone Age.  And no, this was not an inaka hospital.  This was the hospital in the neighboring city.  I can only imagine what a small-town hospital must be like.

One of my favorite moments was when a young woman came in saying she felt sick.  The nurse, as loudly as possible, yelled, "DO YOU HAVE DIARRHEA?!!"  Well of course the woman said no!  How do you expect your patients to be honest and tell you the truth if you're screaming embarrassing questions at them in front of everybody?!!


By the way, that gauze cost me 1600 yen.  Bullshit!

Kind of an amusing story to end on: while waiting around in the hallway, a really hot, young guy came by with bleached hair and chains hanging from his jeans.  But I felt sorry for him because he was walking down the hallway dragging an IV bag with him.  Then I realized he was dragging that IV bag all the way down the hall... to get to the vending machine.  For a soda.  Okay, I didn't feel so sorry for him anymore, lol.  Then I decided he probably just had a cold.

Then I remembered Japan will give someone an IV for literally anything.

Then I remembered Japanese doctors suck.

Aaaand that's my story!  The lesson here being, some of the stuff you hear about the Japanese medical field is true, and some isn't.  Actually, no, it's probably all true sometimes.  There are plenty of medical practitioners who completely enforce the stereotype of the backwards Japanese doctor, but there are also plenty of exceptions.

So just be careful when you can, and tough it out when you can't!

Leaving for Tokyo in a few days!  Winter vacation, y u no come faster?!!  Can't... wait... any... longer........


  1. Survived my visit to the dentist, too. Though without TV ,everything went quick and well, just as you said. I guess they reached Rennaisance in some parts already.^^

  2. It's about time! It's almost 2012, Japan! Time to crawl out of the Dark Ages! Glad your visit went well ^__^

  3. Sounds srly freaky xD. (Merry christmas btw.).

  4. Merry Christmas Miss Kita :)

    At least the dentist visits went well. The doctors may need some work. Let's hope it takes nothing too serious like a viral infection for Japan to I have resident evil in my head..... :P