Living in Japan

My Experience Going to the Dentist in Japan: 4 Things I Learned

Despite the eternal COVID-19 purgatory that we have all been living in, I wanted to keep my spirits up during this holiday season. What says “holidays” more than, “being forced to go to the dentist for the first time in Japan due to a debilitating toothache!?” Not much, I’d say. But yes, recently after many years of being in Japan, I finally went to the dentist for the first, second, and third time. I know many other foreigners are with me when it comes to being a bit spooked about going to the dentist here, so I wanted to share a few things I learned from my experiences. 

#1 Be prepared for MANY appointments

I first called the dentist on the 15th I believe and booked my first appointment on the 18th. As of the writing of this article on the 29th of December, I’ve already had three appointments, and another scheduled for a bit after the New Year. In the United States I was used to just sitting in a chair for two to three hours while the dentist jabbers at you and fixes everything, but the approach here seems to be a bit different. 

At the first appointment they’ll just do a basic cleaning and the X-ray’s. If your teeth are fine then you might be done then and there, but I had a few cavities, and in particular, one really large one. During the second appointment they gave me a temporary filling for the large cavity, which fell out between the second and third. For the third, I got a permanent filling. My next appointment will be to work on the smaller remaining cavities, but I expect it will not be my last… 

Each appointment is only around 30 minutes though, so it’s very much a “get in, get out” kind of affair. Luckily I live very close to my dentist’s office and their business hours are fine for when I’m doing remote work, so it’s honestly not too bad. I think I’d still prefer the one long session like they’d do in the United States though.

#2 It’s CHEAP

To be fair, almost all of the medical procedures and appointments I’ve had in Japan have been shockingly cheap with insurance. Since I had a bunch of cavities and have had multiple appointments I was a bit worried about the fees going into it, especially since I don’t carry a lot of cash on my person. 

The first appointment was around ¥2,000 (about $19 USD), then the second and third were both just under ¥1,000. I even talked to the receptionist after the second appointment about how cheap it was here compared to America. She brought up a colleague of hers who got a high quality filling in America that was customized with special metal, but cost $500 USD. Admittedly I’m not sure about the pricing for most intensive procedures, but for fillings and cleaning so far, so good.

#3 You won’t get a lot of directions

This one might be more of a my dentist thing as opposed to a Japan thing, so your mileage may vary. Normally after a dentist appointment you expect directions like “don’t eat for x minutes” or “don’t chew on one side of the mouth” but I wasn’t told to do anything in particular. When I got the second filling I was at least told to call if it starts hurting a lot. I did call when my temporary filling fell out, but since it was just two days until my next appointment they said not to worry about it. 

Being the worrier that I am, I did a lot of Googling after all of my appointments to try to determine what I could and could not do. Could I eat right away? Could I eat on the side of the mouth with the filling? Most importantly, could I drink alcohol? I probably should have just asked the dentist more explicitly about these things, but I thought “well, if it was important, he should tell me.” 

Googling for medical advice gives you very contradictory answers though, so I basically was just left up to my own. At the very least I kind of learned my lesson after my third appointment and specifically asked if it was fine to eat right away. It was!

#4 You can (probably) get anesthetic 

One of the big myths I heard a lot before going to the dentist was that they don’t use anesthetic in Japan. I asked a Japanese co-worker about this before going and he told me that wasn’t true, which helped me relax a bit. It turned out that none of my procedures really hurt that much, since I didn’t need to get a full on root canal. In the United States though, it’s not uncommon that you would get anesthetic for normal fillings even though. 

During the appointment for the third filling, the dentist specifically let me know to tell him if it hurts, so he can apply anesthetic. Had it hurt and I actually requested anesthetic I’m not exactly sure what would have happened, but I assume he wasn’t saying it just to say it! At the very least anesthetic exists and it was offered for a filling, so if I had to get a root canal for example, I’m sure they would be ready to use it. 

In summary, going to the dentist in Japan was a lot less intimidating than I expected and honestly I wish I had gone earlier, because I probably could have prevented my cavities from getting so bad. I speak Japanese, but even if you don’t, you shouldn’t have too much to be afraid of. Dentists here don’t talk to you a bunch about random stuff while they’re working on your teeth. And you only need very basic vocabulary for the appointment, like “cavity,” “big,” “small,” “gargle,” “close,” “open,” and things along those lines. Don’t be a procrastinator like me and give it a shot!

By Nathan

Nathan works for the Japan Room Finder, helping foreigners find their home in Japan. He’s American and has lived in Japan for about three years. Read Nathan’s self-intro to find out what brought him here!

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