Anywhere in the world, depending upon the circumstances, going to the gynaecologist churns up emotions ranging from banal annoyance to unbridled terror. And having to manage female health concerns as a foreigner in Japan only adds an additional stratum of BLARGH.
For many Western women, the stereotypical image of a 1950’s bespectacled doctor holding an enormous chrome speculum flashes before their eyes just prior to walking through the door of an inevitable but necessary dread: The First Lady Doctor Visit in Japan.
It’s a weird reason to be homesick, but my gynaecologist in San Francisco is the best. She is located in an ultra-progressive zen office filled with top-caliber, casually-clad physicians and wellness experts that insist on being called by their first names.
No over testing, no over medicating, and every holistic and Western medical option offered under the sun. But having ginger tea and discussing herbal remedies for cramps with “Karen” was not to be the order of the day when I ran low on contraception here in Tokyo. I had to gird my expectations and try to keep an open mind.
I had just had a full exam in San Francisco and really didn’t want/need another one. I felt pretty fortunate that I didn’t have to get one to get my prescription filled (I’d brought written scripts and exam records from “Karen” just in case), but after talking to some female colleagues, I realized I was pretty lucky.
Stories of “mandatory” pap smears (even while one patient was menstruating), zero privacy, and the covering or curtaining off of patients’ faces to avoid “shame,” are not uncommon complaints from Western women living here. One woman had her legs strapped into stirrups while being examined in front of a team of medical students without her consent.
Bottom line: When it comes to female health care in Japan, it pays to do your research. Talk to friends. Make phone calls. Read reviews. Find an office your feel comfortable communicating with and that respects your wishes and concerns as a patient.
Most women go to the gynaecologist for a routine checkup and birth control refill, and while there are plenty of clinics and offices that offer these services, the number that have English-speaking staff and experience with foreign female health care is predictably low.
A few things to know about birth control in Japan
Introduced to Japan as a method of contraception in 1998
Not covered by insurance and runs about 3000JPY per month
Unless you do the government-required prescription paperwork (Yakkan Shoumei) and bring over a supply (or have someone back home send you a supply regularly) you’re likely going to have to change brands
Is only available in low-hormone dosages
Not popular here, and Japanese doctors aren’t likely to know how to fit them
Western women often have them fitted before they come over and bring a large supply of spermicide
You need a prescription to get spermicide from a pharmacy in Japan
Like diaphragms, not a common method. You’ll need a foreign doctor or to have it fitted in your home country.
Available everywhere. For larger-sizes, check out Foreign Buyers Club or Condomania in Sendai, Tokyo, or Yokohama.
Other health matters
For non-serious issues (like… say, if you accidentally cut yourself lady-shaving and then do hot yoga, and it gets irritated… and you need a Vagisil analog to keep you from walking like a weirdo) you can go to the drug store and find a female staff member to help you. This happened to a friend of mine (fine it was me) and the girl was super cool and extremely sensitive to my privacy. She even pushed the elderly male pharmacist away yelling, “DAIJOBUUUU!” when I went to the counter to pay. (It comes in a white tube and it’s called Waltz, by the way).
Serious issues: If you thinks you have an STD or a more complicated health issue, you can get tested at any Japanese hospital or clinic. AIDS tests are generally free, but there are cases when clinics have refused to test foreigners (I don’t know the reasons, but if anyone knows, by all means please share!).
Important: If you do get tested for cancer, an STD, or AIDS and the test shows positive, there is a chance this information will be reported to your employer. There have been cases of deportation as a result of this lack of confidentiality. Visit an international or foreign clinic to insure privacy.
A Few English Speaking OB/GYN Service Providers
Primary Care Tokyo: Dr. Joe Kurosu is Stanford-trained general practitioner with training in women’s healthcare. He’s experienced in serving the foreign community and offers online appointment booking.
Toho Women’s Clinic: Located in Kiba. Female, English-speaking gynocologist who has experience working with the Western patients.
Ueda Hospital: Has female, English-speaking gynocologists. Accepts NHI.
Nishikawa Clinic: The website focuses on obstetrics, but this clinic does have gynocologists who speak English.
Disclaimer: the above links are not provided as medical recommendations but as information on English-speaking practitioners in Japan. Always do the legwork and make sure you are seeing the best doctor for your situation.