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How to Lower the Language Barrier When Visiting Clinics and Hospitals in Japan

As a wannabe athlete, my mind often has greater physical fitness ambitions than my body can handle. This means that I find myself visiting medical professionals in Japan more often than one might expect. Having to explain basic symptoms in Japanese usually isn’t an issue. However, more complex maladies, such as nebulous “overuse” injuries, require deeper, nuanced conversations that can be harder to manage spontaneously.

These days, after muddling through countless conversations filled with obscure vocabulary related to bones, tendons, and muscles, I’ve shifted my explanations to my preferred communication medium in any language—writing. Now, whenever I have a sports-related injury, I type out the narrative behind it. Once I arrive at the doctor’s office, I have a prepared statement I can present if the language barrier becomes insurmountable.

You may be calling me Captain Obvious by now, but I’m willing to bet that there are foreign residents out there who might not have considered this approach. As our Japanese speaking ability improves, we tend to get overconfident about our ability to speak on complex topics spontaneously. This leads to squandered opportunities when you have limited amounts of time to speak with an important person, like a doctor, for example. By taking the time to carefully research and write out, in Japanese, causes, symptoms, and attempted treatments, you’re positioning yourself to make the most of your doctor visits.

If you’re new to life in Japan, don’t worry. You can find a decent number of English-speaking doctors, at least in Tokyo. However, depending on where you live, you may have few options in that regard. Additionally, just because a doctor can speak English doesn’t mean that they are comfortable doing so. Arriving for your appointment with your own written Japanese notes makes it easier to explain your ailment while creating a collaborative atmosphere. This will enable your doctor to focus on what he or she does best: helping you recover.

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.