What to do if you catch a cold in Japan — Living in Japan 101

Feeling under the weather in Japan? It’s kind of something we don’t think about until it happens, and then we have to scramble to find information when it’s too late. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s what when you get sick in Japan. Give it a read through before you start to feel symptoms so that you have a good idea of how to proceed in case you catch a cold.

If you are too ill to make it to school or work, please remember to notify your workplace or school.

In case of emergencies, call 119. In most cases the operator should be able to connect you to an English speaking operator to help facilitate your call.

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Where to get over-the-counter medicine

If you are just looking for a quick fix for some pain relief or cough suppressant, check a drugstore for over-the-counter meds to get you through the day. You can find these national chain drugstores practically near any train station and around shopping centers. For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese drugstores and medicines, we’ve put together a short list (non-comprehensive) to get you started on your search.

National drugstore chains:

If you’ve spent any time in Tokyo, you’ve probably walked by a fair share of Matsumoto KiYoshi drugstores like this one. Photo: iStock stock photography

Google maps is a good resource as well, if you look up any of these national chains (or just drugstore, ドラッグストア) you should be able to find a location close to you in a large city. These stores will carry a variety of products, not just medicine. You should be able to find beauty products, soaps, detergents, dental hygiene products, and more at these national drugstore chains.

While it can be easy to find one of these drugstores, it can be difficult to know which medicine is for which symptoms. Let’s take a quick look at a few kinds of OTC medicines that might help alleviate your symptoms.

Medicine in Japan is classified into different risk levels. So there are some medicines that you can pick up off the shelf and purchase yourself if you know what you’re looking for. But if you walk into a drugstore you might notice that there are some medicines that are locked behind the counter, so you’ll need to consult with one of the pharmacists in the store before they can provide you with certain types of medicine. If your spoken Japanese is a bit rusty you might be able to get by with cursory a Google translate of your symptoms.

What kind of medicine is there?

These are popular OTC series of medications for various symptoms. Each brand is subdivided into various categories aimed at specific symptoms, with the most general medicines designed to alleviate headaches, sore throats, coughs, and runny noses. In most cases you can check the packaging to identify what kind of symptoms the medicine is aimed at:

Japanese Kanji Japanese Kana English
のど Throat
はな Nose
鼻水 はなみず Runny nose
鼻づまり はなづまり Stuffy nose
あたま Head
頭痛 ずつう Headache
せき Cough
くしゃみ Sneeze
発熱 はつねつ Fever
さむけ Chills

As always, consult a professional for any questions regarding your conditions and symptoms. This is a small selection of purchasable medicines available in Japan that may or may not be appropriate to take depending on your symptoms and pre-existing conditions.

For additional help, this website by the Japan Self-Medication Data-base Center gives English speakers an easy way to browse Japanese OTC medicine by symptom.

Inside a fairly representative drugstore you’ll notice that it’s not all just medicine inside. You can find hair products, cosmetics, and sometimes even bottled drinks! Photo: Alpha via Flickr

Herbal remedies (called kanpouyaku in Japanese, 漢方薬) can also be found in drugstores and can be bought over-the-counter.

Bringing medicine to Japan

According to the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, you are allowed to bring prescription medicine into Japan under the following conditions:

  • You bring it only for your own use
  • It is not any prohibited drug such as Methamphetamine in Japan
  • It is not any especially controlled drug such as Narcotics in Japan
  • Its quantity is up to one month supply

In order to bring more than a month’s supply of medicine into Japan, you’ll have to apply for and receive a special import certificate (yakkan shomei 薬監証明) prior to arriving in Japan. Certificates can take weeks to process so please apply well ahead of your arrival.

Many common medications and over-the-counter drugs in the United States are illegal in Japan. You’ll need to check with your Japan embassy or consulate for the full details, but there is a good outline prepared online on the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare here.

Finding a clinic/hospital with English-speaking staff

If you feel like you need a medical professional’s help, there are some resources that you can use. Keep in mind that English proficiency is not a requirement for becoming a medical professional in Japan, so do not expect all doctors and nurses to be able to communicate in English. In fact, English speaking medical services are somewhat sparse in Japan, either plan on bringing an interpreter or look for a clinic/hospital that is known to have English speaking support.

There are a couple ways to look for hospitals and clinics with English speaking support.

The Japanese National Tourism Organization has also prepared a database of medical institutions with a variety of searchable languages.

Link to JNTO medical institution database

This screenshot of the JNTO medical institution database is straightforward and easy to use.

You can browse Tokyo’s database of medical clinics using a machine translation service. Please keep in mind that this is a machine translation so the wording and phrasing will not be 100% native level English, however it should be enough to find contact information for a nearby clinic.

Link to machine translated site

Link to Japanese site

Once you find a suitable clinic/hospital the general, basic outline of events is as follows:

  • Check in with the reception desk
  • Fill out any necessary forms (read through our article on How to Fill Out a Medical Exam From at Doctor’s Office in Japan for and idea of what to expect)
  • Meet with the doctor and explain your symptoms
  • Undergo examination
  • Doctor will explain their conclusion
  • If necessary, receive medicine or prescription
  • Head to the cashier for payment

Very similar to what you might be used to except for visiting the cashier. In Japan you will settle your bill with the hospital at the hospital, which will take cash and major credit cards. In fact, there’s usually an ATM located in the lobby of hospitals so that patients can withdraw the necessary funds to make a payment.

If you’re a resident of Japan, even as a foreigner, there’s a good chance you’re enrolled in either National Health Insurance  (国民健康保険) or Employee Health Insurance (健康保険). It’s mandatory to sign up for some form on health insurance as a resident in Japan, make sure you’re aware of your insurance status as a resident. When you provide the hospital with your insurance information, the insurance will cover 70% of the cost. The remaining 30% is the burden of the patient, but this can be paid through other forms of private insurance or even employers.

AMDA Medical Information Center

The AMDA Medical Information Center is a non-profit organization that provides telephone consultation for medical issues, including telephone interpretation for medical visits, referrals to medical institutions, and help with the medical/welfare system in Japan.

English website: AMDA Medical Information Center

TEL: 03-6233-9266 (Monday to Friday, 10AM to 3PM)

Japanese medical terms

For an in-depth look at Japanese medical terms, read through our article on How to Fill Out a Medical Exam From at Doctor’s Office in Japan.

Example of a typical medical questionnaire you’ll be asked to fill out at a doctor’s office or hospital in Japan. Not all hospitals have this form translated into English. For help with the terminology, click on the image to see our Japanese-English kanji cheat sheet.

Lead photo: Adam Gradzki via Wikimedia Commons