Cultural Adjustment, Living Abroad, Student Life Abroad, University Abroad

Tiny medicine and rice porridge? – Being sick in Japan

October 17, 2015

The first few days, weeks, and months in a new country is very exciting, but it can also be extremely exhausting. From the moment I stepped off the plane at Haneda Airport, Japan, my days were jam-packed with orientations, neighborhood tours, moving-in, and course registrations. To top it off, Japan was transitioning from its muggy, sticky summer weather to a cool, autumn season.. oh, and we came during the typhoon season (nothing major right?). Some students from the CSU program got sick once they landed Tokyo and some after a week. For me, however, I got sick before the 1st day of classes (sigh).

As so, I spent a couple weeks during my first month in Japan mostly in bed. Getting sick sucks in general but it feels worse when you just arrived in a foreign place and you are still unfamiliar with your surroundings. Of course you need the usual healthy foods, rest, and medicine to get better- what you need to get and how’s it’s done is a bit different in Japan.

Medicine and clinics

If you hardly or never get sick during the school year like me, getting sick while studying abroad can be a bit overwhelming. Usually I don’t need to take much medicine to get better (I rely more on tons of bed rest and healthy food) but I had a horrible cough that lasted for about a week. As so, I decided that I needed to take some kind of medicine to help me with my coughing.

Now this is one culture difference I found to be kind of frustrating. In the US, you can buy over-the-counter cough medicine easily at your local drugstore. In Japan, you have to go to a health clinic or hospital and get a prescription from a doctor for most medicines and pills. Once you have your prescription, you have to go to a drug store that specializes in selling these types of medicines (you cannot buy these at your local CVS/Walgreens-equivalent stores). This process can be difficult if you do not know any Japanese medical terms or have a hard time communicating in Japanese. Although there are some doctors at Waseda University’s health clinic who know some English, it may not be enough to communicate what is happening to your body and what you need to properly recover.

Despite the language barrier and process, I was happily surprised to find out that going to the doctor and purchasing medicine is extremely cheap compared to the US. I had a couple of visits to the health clinic and they ranged from 300 yen to 1000 yen ($3-10) and my week-supply of cough medicine cost less than 1000 yen($10). Thank you Japan’s universal health care system!!

Paying machine for doctors visit at Waseda University' health clinic

Paying machine for doctors visit at Waseda University’ health clinic


Japanese cough medicine- so tiny!

Japanese cough medicine- so tiny!

If you ever study at Waseda University here is a link to their health clinic: Waseda University Health Clinic

If you sick in Japan and if your university’s health clinic cannot help you, you can always go to a hospital. However, like university clinics, most hospitals are NOT open 24 hours and are closed on weekends and holidays (they will take you in if it is an emergency but it will cost more). Also, make sure the hospital or clinic you go to has English or other language translators. Attached is the link to the hospital near Waseda University: National Center for Global Health and Medicine, Japan

Food and drinks

In the US, we are used to foods like chicken noodle soup and hot tea when we are sick. In Japan, most Japanese people eat okayu (rice porridge) with umeboshi (sour plum) and furikake (dry Japanese seasoning) because it is easy to eat. Okayu is very bland when eaten by itself but is can be very tasty when you add furikake or other seasonings- yum! You can pick up these ingredients easily (and for a cheap price) at your local Japanese supermarket. Don’t forget to drink lots and lots of water!

Green tea and red bean okayu (rice porridge)

Green tea and red bean okayu (rice porridge)

Lessons from this Experience

Although being sick was definitely not one of my enjoyable study abroad experiences, I was able to learn and understand more about Japan’s “sick culture” and health care system. I am thankful that Japan has a health care system that makes it affordable to go to the doctors without breaking the bank. And I am even more thankful that Japan’s health care clinics have doctors and medical staff who are very friendly and do as much as they can to accommodate foreigners and study abroad students.

If you ever do get sick I recommend bringing a friend as mental support and to help explain your situation (especially if you are not fluent in your host country’s language). I brought my native Japanese friend with me (who also happened to study abroad at SF State!) every time I went to Waseda University’s health clinic. Not only will this make your doctor visit go smoother but it will also save you time and stress.

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