A Trip to the Japanese Dentist

I set up an appointment with one of the local dentists on my small island. I am a sucker for adventure, but this journey was just another biannual checkup. I slipped on a pair of the maroon indoor slippers and shuffled in. After offering up my National Insurance card, I asked for a little help on the new customer form. The receptionist was more than glad to help. I sat down on one of the waiting room benches and perused the reading material: a half-sized bookcase of almost all manga.

After a little, I was called into the main room shared by two dentist chairs the rusty yellow color of antique furniture you might find at a low-budget beach house. Behind the seats were the reception area and a back area with the x-ray room and what I would assume to be the dentist’s office. A radio was blasting one of the two tunable stations on the island. You might have guessed easy listening in a medical office, but it was loud J-pop coursing through the air. To my right, there was a tray of picks and tools so various and neat that it would have delighted one of the lunatics from “Hostel”. I guess America generally thinks that tools should be stored out of view unless needed.

A “dental explorer,” found in every dentist’s arsenal.

The dentist (along with every other Japanese professional I met with overseas experience) seemed delighted to dig into his rusty English arsenal to hash together strange and entertaining conversation. He talked about removing the “stains” from my teeth and that I would be “easy” during the whole process. Nice. It was the same strangely homey feeling I often get from interactions with helpful Japanese that speak Japanese (whereas I generally don’t). He explained that this visit would only be the top row of teeth and the next visit my bottom row. I’m guessing the previous ALTs had sharpened his explanation skills on the subject.

He showed me into the x-ray room and even though he didn’t offer one of the lead vests that make me feel comfortable about my organs’ welfare, the x-ray took only 30 seconds total. There was none of that here-bite-on-this-uncomfortable-plastic-slide-sheet-while-I-leave-the-room-and-flip-a-switch or oh-didn’t-I-mention-there-will-be-six-or-seven-of-these-depending-on-if-you-stayed-still-through-the-pain. He showed me the panoramic slide of my teeth and made sure to point out the “stains”. I was rather embarrassed I hadn’t brushed after lunch that day.

As the assistant clipped on my dental bib, the dentist averted my attention to my top row in the x-ray. As it turns out, I am of a select few that has no back molars on the top row. Why am I just hearing this now? I have regularly been to the dentist since I was a kid and he is the first to have caught this? Moving on.

Now, I am not one of the scared-stiff breed that fear the dentist but I do loathe the nagging about flossing, and that if I’m not careful my gums will recede and my teeth will fall out. If your American dentist forgot to mention the sin of negligence, then the grisly posters that line the walls serve as faithful reminders. As a kid, I was convinced for years I had one of the poster-diseases because my gums would bleed when I brushed them too hard.

What haunted my dreams at night

The bib I wore served as a guard for any water that might have spattered on my shirt. In a strange contrast, American dentists smear the bib with your own blood and plaque as a sign of either (A) how much they accomplished or (B) how incompetent you are at cleaning your own teeth. As the dentist shined the rays of god into my unprotected eyes I was once again reminded of how inevitably awkward interactions become when there’s a vacuum tube, a pick and the dentists fingers in your mouth.

When is it O.K. to swallow? Do you try to swallow with your mouth still open? Is your tongue in the way? How wide open does your mouth need to be? Isn’t it embarrassing when the vacuum gets stuck to your cheek? Does every patient’s mouth water this much? Do every patient’s lips get this dry? Eyes open or shut? At what point do you tell them something is painful?

Overall, the Japanese dentist didn’t hurt nearly as much. (Is that a good thing?) Visits to my American dentist usually include him finding a little crevice in a tooth with that sharp hook instrument, digging it in and pulling too hard for too long. And then he meanders off to some other innocent tooth as if it had all be a chance encounter. Also, the Japanese tooth polish was nothing comparable to the unpleasant gritty mint polish they slather on your teeth in America that inevitably coats your mouth and some of your throat. I’m realizing that having my teeth cleaned is like getting a tattoo.

It’s time to rinse and spit. In the U.S., I’m used to rinsing with a small plastic cup of water dispensed from a small faucet. You can imagine my surprise when I was provided with basically a mini public drinking fountain. I could see various colors of dirt coating the drain and around the faucet nozzle. In general, I would say the medical community in Japan is a bit minimalistic in terms of health precautions. Just off the top of my head, I remember spotting bloody tubes carelessly dangling from an unmarked trashcan in my local doctor’s office.

After my top row was finished, I sat up and chatted a bit more with the dentist. Maybe as a foreigner I was granted a few liberties, but I’m guessing he was rather busy. I asked why this cleaning has to be broken into two visits. I found a lot of research saying Japanese doctors don’t make a lot of money. In America, besides payment for each procedure, dentists make money from referrals, overcharging insurance companies and, well, generally most things concerning the monopolies of our corrupt medical industry (including but not limited to brand name drugs). This is not to mention their general salary which depends on whether they are private or public.

Japanese don’t make a killing like they do in the states. The industry is highly regulated: surcharges don’t fluctuate or rise. The costs are low especially when we’re talking about the longer and more painful procedures. This is rumored to be one of the reasons why visits are broken up into various sessions. More visits, more co-pays. More co-pays, more money.

My dentist assured me this was not the case. This is what I understood from his broken English and my broken Japanese: there is a dental insurance guideline in Japan stating that a patient’s routine visit must be broken into two separate visits. Doctors sometimes disregard this rule but they are punished if they are caught. This could mean a slap on the wrist, a fine or worse. Why does this rule exist? He had no idea and neither do I.

I’ve heard some horror stories about Japanese dentists and I’m sure some of you have heard your share as well. Some stories are about the Japanese tendency to avoid heavier sedatives even for surgeries. Scary. Also, I’m pretty sure Japan bans the use of fluoride in toothpaste as it may be detrimental to your health. This may or may not be the reason half of the adults living in my neighborhood have either a gold tooth, a strange wire construction around their teeth or missing teeth altogether. (Maybe it’s just genetics.)

As for my check-up and cleaning, I would say it was a rather pleasant experience. The first visit was 2630 yen including the x-ray. The second visit: 1060 yen. These prices reflect the 30 percent I pay whereas the health insurance covers the other 70 percent. As I slid the money through the window to the receptionist I decided I was looking forward to next year’s visit. (Isn’t it supposed to be every 6 months?) The receptionist said, “Odaijini,” and bowed as I bowed back. I’m guessing this “take care of yourself” or “take care of your teeth” could roughly be translated to, “Don’t forget to brush!”

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6 thoughts on “A Trip to the Japanese Dentist

    • Haha. I’d say it was neither better nor worse than my American experiences. The language barrier can be quite intimidating though.

  1. So I think that it is hilarious that the top search engine terms that landed people on this site in the last week include: teeth disorders, japanese dentist tube, japanese dentist horror, bloody japanese dentist tools and how much do dentists in japan. 🙂

  2. Haha. I’m famous. There is actually a fair amount of global fear of Japanese dentists. And, yes, there are some real horror stories…refusal of novocaine, 4+ return visits to accomplish one job, doing work without consent, etc. It makes sense the traffic we’re getting haha.

  3. Pingback: Happy (Belated) Birthday! « THE BUCKNELL AFTERWORD

  4. Interesting account. I am a former ALT who used to live in inaka Japan.. I actually went to see my dentist in town (an old man) and he did my clean my teeth in one visit instead of two like everyone else’s dentist. It was a small town and it didn’t take too long.

    What I thought was annoying and scary was the lack of gloves (some friends also had dentists that did it). He’d stick his bare fingers in my mouth to feel and dig! And also he seemed to think that one visit a year was more than enough. In Australia dentists encourage twice a year visits (probably to make more money! ha!). Since I came back to Australia, I’ve realised that my old dentist in Japan didn’t use coat my teeth with fluoride after a clean and didn’t use the surface polisher that my Aussie dentist does. In fact, my recent visit to my Aussie dentist actually whitened my teeth after he polished off the surface stains that had been there for some time… (well the number of years I lived in Japan).

    Perhaps I needed to see a dentist in a big town instead of some country one to get a different experience?

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