Decoding Japanese Medications

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November 9, 2014

Maybe you are ill and need medicine, or maybe you just want to take some vitamins to ward off potential illnesses. Either way, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of information in Japanese. Let’s face it, even in one’s native language, medicine can be very confusing.

Here are some tips to minimise your confusion, even if you aren’t all that fluent in Japanese.

First, get your medications. If you just want some over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicine or vitamins, your best bet is going to a drug store. Please be aware that some of the medicines you get in your home country as OTC may be prescription-only in Japan. It’s always good to check. Many medicines have some English or pictures on the packaging, so use that to your advantage. If you describe or even mime your symptoms to the drug store pharmacist, they can often help you figure out which medicine you need.

Most drug stores have large signs with the kanji for medicine, 薬 (kusuri), clearly displayed. Please be aware that pharmacies also have those signs. To further confuse you, both drug stores and pharmacies are referred to by the same words, kusuriya (薬屋) or yakkyoku (薬局).

You can distinguish a pharmacy from a drug store just by looking in the store. Drug stores stock a multitude of items apart from medicine and are open later than pharmacies. Due to their larger size, some of the drug stores even have a pharmacy for prescriptions. Stand-alone pharmacies are typically very small with a check-in counter for turning in prescriptions. Some pharmacies don’t even openly display medicines at all.

If you go to a clinic or hospital, sometimes they will give you your medicine from their own internal pharmacy, but sometimes you get a prescription, called shohousen (処方せん), to fill externally. Usually, there is a pharmacy within a few blocks of that hospital or clinic. Due to the government healthcare system, the prices are standardised, so it doesn’t really matter where you go to fill your prescription. However, some prescriptions have time limits, so make sure you fill them immediately.

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Prescription medications are placed in paper bags with the dosages listed on the outside. The pharmacist should also give you a print out of what the medicine is and how to take it. For a small fee, you can buy a medicine booklet, called an okusuritechou (お薬手帳), and keep all of your prescription information in it. You can take it to any pharmacy once you have it. Each time you fill a prescription, you will get a sticker label to place in the book. This gives you a great method of keeping track of your medical history and the medications you have been on.

Next, identify what you’re taking. Even if you don’t know Japanese, you can ask the doctor or the pharmacist to pronounce the name of the medicine you’re taking. You may be able to ask them to write the name in romaji for you.

Once you know the name, then you can try to find information about it online in your own language. If you do not find anything at first, try different variations of the spelling. Sometimes Japanese companies don’t spell their product names with the typical Japanese syllabary. It could also be that the name of the medicine is the Japanese chemical term. In this case, you may want to check a dictionary.

If you know your symptoms, or if you know anything about what the drug does, you can add related words to any online search in order to find more specific information about the drug you’re taking. It may take an extensive search in order to find out that the Japanese medicine’s name is just one of many names given to a very common medicine.

For example, カロナール would usually be spelled as “Karonaru” in the Japanese syllabary, but is actually spelled “Calonal” by the company. A simple internet search quickly reveals that it is paracetamol (acetaminophen). Additional searches can help you find a more familiar trade or brand name. In this case, Calonal is basically Tylenol or Panadol. Once you have that information, you can look up the information, warnings, and interactions in your own language.

Once you know about the medicine you are taking, you need to determine your dosage. While many of my doctors have confirmed that Japanese dosages are typically weaker then American dosages, you still should follow the directions given to you. If you have any questions or concerns about your dosage, you need to talk to your doctor.

Dosages are always marked in kanji, which can seem daunting for those who don’t know kanji. Luckily, there isn’t a lot of variation, so once you know the typical kanji, you are set. Japanese dosages are always listed in order of most abstract to the most defined, so that will also help you decipher the dosage. For example, you will see something written like this:

全12個 1日1回 1回1個 朝食後 12日分

The first kanji means “all, 全 ” and the last kanji is a counter for pills (個). So first, it says I have a total of 12 pills. There are other counters for pills depending on their shape. 個 is typically for small pills and capsules, but can be used for almost any type. 錠 is typically for round pressed pills or tablets. 包 is typically used for powder pouches.

Next, it has the kanji for day (日) and the kanji for times (回). This means that for every one day, I have to take the medicine one time. The next part uses the time kanji again (回) with the pill counting kanji (個). This means that each time I take it, I only take one pill. So in total, I take one pill once a day.

The next part tells me when. First, it says after breakfast (eat) (朝). Other times could be listed as midday (昼), evening (夕), and night (夜). The next it has the meal kanji (食). Then it says after (後). The alternative to after is before (前). The last kanji set involves the amount of days I need to do this. So I have to take one pill a day after breakfast for a period of 12 days.

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Groovy punky reggae nerd from Kansai.
  • Hi, can I use the photo of the kusuriya in one of the future posts on my travel blog?
    I will put the link here or to the author’s (Quincy’s) website as the reference.

  • Sik says:

    Fun how I could decipher most of that dosage at first glance (the only part I didn’t was 朝食後), guess I’m not that bad with common kanji these days (although actually all the other ones were counters…). For the record, 個 is the catch-all counter for when no other counter fits, e.g. “五個のボタン” would mean “five buttons”.

    Also today I learned that drug stores and pharmacies are different things. Oi. In Argentina (or at least this region) they simply aren’t separate, you can’t be a drug store without also being a pharmacy. This also makes things *a lot* less confusing. How common in Japan are drug stores that aren’t also pharmacies?

  • maulinator says:

    For stomach problem, Seirogan is very good. FOr some reason they recommend it for toothaches too, but I have never tried it that way.
    Muhi is good for mosquito bites but Kinkan is stronger.
    For painkillers, they do have tylenol in Japan. the dosages IIRC is 250 per tablet in Japan, and but in the states Extra strength is 500. So if you want you can double the dosage. I do not recommend this, but pain hurts and we Americans are much bigger. Also Tylenol will mess your liver up if you use it for to long.

  • papiGiulio says:

    How about some suggestions for other symptoms:

    Have a cold? Look for a medicine called (Paburon パブロン) or Contac コンタク

    Suffering from an upset stomach or heartburn try a medicine called (Cabegin キャベギン)

    Not medicine necessarily but if you get stung by a mosquito i can recommend (MUHI ムヒ cream)

    As for painkillers, I use Dutch ones, they are very strong, I feel the Japanese painkillers just dont cut it for me.

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