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Hospital Stays in Japan: What Can You Expect?

You never know when you might have to check into the hospital: here’s what you should know beforehand.

By 7 min read 3

After my first couple of hours in a Japanese hospital, I started to feel like I was in prison—a prison where everyone was friendly and polite and always said “please” when they gave you an order, but a prison nonetheless.

There were many rules, but after a couple of weeks, I got used to them and the environment and even started enjoying my stay. In the end, I was in the hospital for 18 days.

Most hospitals have private rooms with a shower, but you’ll need to pay.

This seemed far too long and even slightly unnecessary, but Japanese hospitals tend to err on the side of caution and keep people in until they are absolutely sure they are OK. You can ask to leave earlier if you really want to.

In this article, I’ll explain what being in a Japanese hospital is like and a few things you should know before being admitted as an inpatient.

Health insurance

A typical waiting room at a hospital in Japan.

Under normal circumstances, adults are liable for 30% of the cost of medical treatment if they’re covered under national health insurance. However, there is a monthly cap applied to significant medical expenses based on your income. If your medical expenses go over the monthly cap, you don’t have to pay any more than that.

You can check what your expense cap might be on the Ministry of Health, Labour & Welfare website (page 4—Japanese).

It’s a good idea to carry your health insurance card around with you.

This is called the kogaku ryoyohi seido, or High-Cost Medical Expense Benefit, and it is a key element to prevent financial hardship from medical bills. For example, my treatment cost over ¥2.5 million, but thanks to the benefit, I was only charged ¥85,000. This amount includes medical expenses and a stay in a normal (communal) ward. It does not include food, the cost of a double or private room, or additional fees.

Keep in mind, you need to apply for this benefit yourself—ideally before checking into the hospital. If you do so, your hospital bill will be limited to the amount under the monthly cap. You can apply for this through your local city hall (if you are on basic national health insurance) or through your employer (if you are on employee insurance).

Hospital rules and environment

Some rooms will look better than others (and cost more too).

Hospitals can be pretty strict. After all, they are institutions that are trying to balance the interests of all patients and staff. Every hospital will be different, but my hospital’s schedule looked like this:

  • 6 a.m.: Nurses do morning rounds
  • 7 a.m.: Breakfast
  • Noon: Lunch
  • 6 p.m.: Dinner
  • 9 p.m.: Lights out

I haven’t gone to sleep at 9 p.m. since middle school!

Hospitals may also have a restaurant or convenience store.

Rooms are never completely dark due to emergency lighting, and nurses come round every couple of hours during the night to check on patients. Combined with the slightly too short bed and the hard mattress, I didn’t really sleep properly the whole time I was in the hospital. You might want to bring earplugs and a sleep mask with you.

Patients in standard six- or four-patient rooms or twin rooms were allowed to shower three times a week, either Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. This was a shock, as I usually shower at least twice a day, morning and night. Most hospitals have private rooms with a shower, but you’ll need to pay more and those rooms are not covered by national health insurance.

Each patient had a small TV, a fridge and some drawers to store belongings.

Hospital food

Photo:
The type of food you can expect at a hospital in Japan.

The food ended up being better than I expected. Basically, it was white rice every meal, with fish, tofu or meat, a soup, some vegetables and milk with breakfast. Before being admitted I was asked about food allergies and preferences, and a nutritionist came to have a chat on the third day to see if everything was OK.

I’m a fairly fussy eater but found myself eating about 90% of what I was served. My meal plan was unrestricted (people with certain conditions have different meal plans) and set at 2,000 calories per day. This seemed about right as I was hungry before meals but not overly so, and didn’t lose as much weight as I was hoping to!

My food was ¥700 a day and not covered by insurance. Some hospitals have better food for a fee, but sadly mine did not. Hospitals may also have a restaurant or convenience store. You can see more pictures of the food here.

Planning your stay

Bring a list of questions with you to plan your stay.

Usually, for operations and serious medical treatment, the hospital will ask a family member to be present for explanations and to give permission for the treatment.

For surgery, they will be asked to be present for the entire operation just in case something happens and they need to make a decision. If you don’t have a family member available, a friend or colleague can do this instead.

You should also have a briefing session with the hospital before admission to go over procedures and other basic information. I’d recommend bringing a list of questions with you, as they won’t volunteer all the necessary information. See the checklist section below for some ideas.

Unplanned stays

Definitely not how you want to wake up, but it does happen.

If you find yourself in the hospital due to sudden illness or a traffic accident, you will have to depend on the kindness of family or friends to get you any necessities. So for this reason—it’s probably a good idea to carry your health insurance card around with you.

My daughter ended up hospitalized due to appendicitis a few years ago. Fortunately, we could take care of everything for her, but it might also be worth leaving a spare key with a trusted friend if you don’t have family or roommates.

Most hospitals will also provide necessities like pajamas, cutlery, towels and slippers for a fee. I ended up doing this for my stay. It was ¥400 a day for basically everything (except underwear), and it made things very easy. This fee is not covered by insurance.

Checklist

This is a (probably incomplete) list of things I wish I had thought of before going into hospital:

  • Small kettle (there was hot water available, but not boiling)
  • Coffee or tea
  • Cups, forks, spoons or chopsticks
  • Underwear and slippers
  • Your medicine or supplements. The hospital will vet them to ensure they won’t react to your inpatient treatment but will not issue new meds for you based on external prescriptions. I got six weeks of allergy meds from my regular doctor just in case.
  • A laptop (Ask about internet access beforehand if you can. Be prepared to spend a lot of money on data if you plan on using your phone for the internet.)
  • Decent headphones
  • Pillow, lightweight sheets, a sleep mask and earplugs
  • Check to see if the hospital has a convenience store or restaurants (They make a big difference.)

Hospitals during the pandemic

You’ll need to take extra precautions due to COVID-19.

I had to have a COVID-19 test a few days before checking into the hospital for my stay. The test was covered by national health insurance. The hospital requested that I self-isolate as much as possible between the test and checking in.

No visitors were allowed during my stay, although friends and family could drop things off and collect items (mainly laundry) via the nurses.

Japanese language

I speak passable Japanese, so I found chatting with some of the nurses quite fun. It made my stay much more tolerable. Making friends with one of the cleaners was a highlight. If you don’t speak Japanese, you may struggle a bit more, but the staff will appreciate any effort you make to be cheerful and friendly.

How about you? If you have spent time in hospital recently, how was your stay? Was your hospital more comfortable than mine?

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  • Abby says:

    Very helpful article! Thank you!

  • Sid Feinleib says:

    Years ago, my PSA was gradually rising. My doctor (surgeon)
    recommended a biopsy. (Note: I am just fine and take meds for
    three months and none for three months.) The first step was to
    clear the way for the instrument. A young nurse proceeded to
    apply a small enema, but had difficulty. Some friends jokingly
    call me an a-hole, so there should not have been any problem.

    After administration, the head nurse came to inspect my poop
    and said it was enough, which made me proud. Then into the
    surgical ward and anesthesia. My doctor came with an entourage
    of several interns and nurses for training. To test if the med was
    working, I was asked where I came from. After some thought,
    I replied, “Juni kai.” (ninth floor), clearly not what he expected.
    A nurse tittered and my doctor took of his mask and laughed, as
    did everyone else. The anesthesiologist, said, “More meds.” I slept.

    A short time later, I was mostly out but could vaguely see the
    entourage. Somehow, my private parts had fallen out of my
    pajamas. My doctor turned to the youngest and prettiest nurse
    and ordered her to put them back gently. Which she did. Now, I
    should note that I am very happily married to a fantastic lady.
    But that charming experience has left an indelible memory
    and favorable view of hospitals. It was a bit of harsh training for
    the young nurse, but I am sure no situation bothers her now.

  • Henry Miyamoto says:

    HI BEN:

    I want to stay in Tokyo 3 months at a time, during Spring, Fall, and maybe Winter months. I have just a Passport.

    If I contract COVID, would I have to stay at only those hospitals that participate with BLUE CROSS, BLUE SHIELD in order to receive reimbursement for any bills accrued?
    My Federal government Health Insurance is affiliated with the BLUE CROSS, and provides partial payments.
    I realize I’d have to pay any difference in cash upon check-out, and I have a Tokyo friend (Registered Nurse) who would help me with any billing.

    Thank you for your advice!

    H. Miyamoto

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