Japan has the highest life expectancy of any country in the world, averaging 84.62 years (according to 2020 data from the World Bank). It also has a reasonably priced healthcare system, with insurance picking up seventy percent of most doctor bills, bills that are already surprisingly affordable. And yet, medical care in Japan is complicated, mostly because all of the doctor signs are written in Japanese. How do you find the right clinic?
In this article, I’ll introduce you to the main types of doctors you will see in Japan. If you live here, some of these Japanese names might already be familiar, as advertisements for medical clinics are on nearly every flat surface. Of course, the number of medical specialties is vast, and I can’t cover them all. But the list below includes the basic types, and you should be able to drill down into a specialist from there.
General and Internal Medicine
Your local catch-all physician is the naika (内科), an internal medicine professional, sometimes called an ippan-naika (一般内科). While some may argue that an internist is not the same as a general practitioner or family doctor, this nonetheless is the specialization you will look to for everyday care. Speaking of clinics, the term for that is kurinikku (クリニック), a word that applies to a broad range of medical offices. Your doctor might also work at a byōin (病院), that is, at a hospital.
Despite the invasive-sounding name, internists do a lot of looking, poking, and prodding that never breaks the surface of the skin. But don’t worry; you can get vaccines and other shots from a naika. If you feel a cold coming on, or you scrapped your knee, or you have a tummy ache, an internal physician is a great place to start.
Doctors who are ready to cut you open or remove parts of organs are known as geka (外科). That word’s first character literally means “outside,” the exact opposite of the character that starts the “internal” medicine word. Who comes up with these names? In any case, many surgeons work exclusively in hospitals, but outpatient geka do exist for more minor procedures.
Pediatrics and Geriatrics
Shōnika (小児科) is the Japanese word for pediatrics, medicine that focuses on childhood illnesses. On the other end of the spectrum, geriatrics is known as rōjin-iryō (老人医療). With Japan’s rapidly aging population, such specialists are in high demand.
Orthopedic practices are known as seikei-geka (整形外科) in Japanese. Such physicians are all over the place in Japan. While some orthopedic surgeons might need to cut you open to fix your bones or muscles, many of these doctors offer less-invasive relief for muscle and soft tissue aches and injuries. When I wrenched my shoulder a few years back, I visited a seikei-geka once a week for treatments. The staff applied electricity, heat, and strong massages to the affected muscles. Not only did I get better, it all happened at a great price. A comparable visit would cost me well over $100 back in the United States. My typically orthopedic visit in Japan cost less than ¥900, or about $7.
Some patients who visit a seikei-geka will go into the shinsatsu-shitsu (診察室), an examination room where you meet the real doctor. But most patients head toward the rigaku-ryōhō-shitsu (理学療法室), the physical therapy room, where a collection of nurses, physical therapists, and physician’s assistants make your muscles feel much better. Most patients entering that room tend to be age 70 and above.
Optometry and Ophthalmology
The eyes are the window to the soul, and a Japanese ganka (眼科) is very good at checking your soul. In the US, you will typically seek out an optometrist when you want glasses, and an ophthalmologist when you are worried that something is really wrong with your eyes. In Japan, a ganka typically serves both communities, although I have seen eyeglass stores that have an in-house optometrist only.
If you are looking for an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor, search for the word jibi-inkōka (耳鼻咽喉科), sometimes shortened to just jibika (耳鼻科). Such clinics might also delve into pulmonary medicine. For instance, if you require a CPAP machine, you might pick one up from a Japanese ENT even though such devices focus on the lungs.
Skin doctors are called hifuka (皮膚科) in Japanese. A lot of advertisements for such doctors seem to focus on making the skin look better: laser treatments to remove blemishes, age-defying creams, and so on. But you would also visit this doctor to check for more serious problems, such as skin cancers or worrisome blotches. Sorry to be so direct, but it’s true.
For women’s health, you visit a fujinka (婦人科), the name for a gynecologist. But if you are about to have a baby, check out an obstetrician, or sanka (産科), instead. And congratulations on your new baby!
Unless you have a chronic illness, the doctor you will probably see more than all others is the dentist, known as shika (歯科) in Japan. Back in the US, I scheduled my dental cleanings twice a year, but here in Japan, such services happen every three months. Dentists here also seem to do a lot more than I am used to. All clinics here perform routine dental work, but some also offer orthodontic and oral surgery services, things that would be done by specialists back in America.
Here are some other common terms for medical specialties.
- Gastroenterology = ichō-naika (胃腸内科)
- Cardiology = junkan-kika (循環器科)
- Pulmonology = kokyū-kika (呼吸器科)
- Urology = hi’nyō-kika (泌尿器科)
- Radiology = hōsha-senka (放射線科)
- Psychology = seishinka (精神科)
- Emergency Medicine = kyūkyūka (救急科)
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