Friday, December 05, 2014

Sick and Lost in Translation in Tokyo, Japan: At the Doctor's Clinic and Pharmacy

The last thing we want to ever happen to us whilst travelling and/or holidaying is getting sick. Helaas, it happened to me during our recent holiday in Tokyo, Japan. I badly needed to see a doctor because the symptoms I was exhibiting were quite serious. However, Dutchman and I were faced with the language and communication difficulty. Nobody really at the hotel’s reception desk spoke intelligible English.

A friend of mine who lives in Yokohama told me that Japanese children learn English in school. That they do get hours to learn and practice a bit the international language. Perhaps similar to the French, and like the French as well, the majority somehow just fail to speak it. It does not mean however that they do not understand English, its just that most Japanese cannot speak, or rather, express themselves in English.

In the morning of our fourth day into our holiday in Tokyo, I was sleeping soundly in the comforts of our hotel bed, after a night of coughing, wheezing, chills and changing positions in bed because I could not breathe properly, while Dutchman went downstairs to the hotel reception desk to brave the communication challenge.


We did not know about this but I guess the best bet as a tourist staying in a hotel is to first ask for help at the hotel's reception desk. Here is the link: English speaking doctors in Tokyo

He explained to the girl behind the reception desk, in slow and very clear English that he needed a doctor because I am sick. He was not really sure if the girl understood him or not. She simply smiled and acknowledged him by nodding, and went further on to work. Not a single word was said, she just stared at her computer screen and was actively typing on the keyboard. Dutchman thought she must be busy for him. Indeed, after 10 long minutes of waiting, she produced a map, in Japanese course. Because Japanese people are very service minded, which I read by the way that in Japanese culture they always take the welfare of others before theirs, he was escorted to the doctor’s clinic. Fortunately, the clinic is just a block away from the hotel in Kodenmacho (Nihonbashi area in Chuo ward). Once Dutchman was able to confirm the location of the doctor’s clinic, he came back to the hotel room to fetch me.

At the doctor’s clinic we were welcomed by the doctor’s assistants. No one, as usual, spoke English. As I was too weak to even speak, Dutchman did all the mediation, he did a lot of slow English speaking and pantomiming. Wow, I am seeing some serious talent displayed before my very eyes =)

Our turn came and I was received by a small and adorable granny doctor. She was the only one who spoke English at the clinic, albeit very, very little. She was in fact grasping for words to say. Poor doctor, she must not have a lot of foreigners, let alone sick tourists visiting her clinic. But that does not matter, we understood each other very well. She told me there is something wrong with my lung, so she brought me to the adjacent room for an x-ray. She then relayed the bad news that I have Bronchitis, although the Philippine doctor at a later date said it was already Pneumonia. Perhaps the Japanese doctor had just a case of a lack of the right English medical term to use?

‘Please be very careful.’ Said the sweet Japanese granny doctor to me. Twice. I think she even said it three times.

She was somewhat very concerned about my well-being so it dawned on us that what I have could be very serious. She also told me that she is giving me a very strong medication, and I must visit a doctor in the Philippines (my next leg of the holiday itinerary) after a week. Well if I look at my lung’s x-ray and seeing the thick white sheath on my lower lung lobe, I do somewhat felt troubled. She gave me a copy of the x-ray on a CD so I guess I can pretty much say I have a souvenir from this Tokyo holiday trip.

The clinic did not accept credit cards so we paid in cash. Good thing we had withdrawn money earlier. We realised that a medical visit like this is much cheaper in Japan than in the Netherlands, but then again I am covered with my own health insurance, as well as travel insurance.


This is the one-time strong antibiotic that was prescribed to me. Pretty much very descriptive with the drawing. The Japanese are visual people which is an advantage to foreigners/tourists who do not speak the language. My mom had to laugh about this.

The pharmacy was not too far away from the doctor’s clinic and Dutchman purchased the medications for me. As it is, no one in the pharmacy can really speak English. Well, no surprise here anymore! =)

It can be frustrating up to some point, especially when you have an important and critical task at hand such as understanding which medications to take and how much the dosages are per day. Eventually, Dutchman and the pharmacist were able to iron things out. How? They did some extra labelling for the type of medications, and the pharmacist explained, rather painstakingly in her own way, what the numbers mean. Brilliant, the Dutchman finally understood. Hallelujah!


This is the rest of the prescription from the pharmacy. They managed to write down which is the antibiotic, which are for cough and for phlegm. If you pay attention to the numbers they will tell you the dosage. Thus, except for the antibiotic, I have to take the two medications for 7 days, 3x in 1 day. Easy peasy huh? =)


Just in case if you are curious to see Japanese money, the Yen (JPY). JPY 1,000 JPY is EUR 6.76 for reference, or round it off to EUR 7.

When the Dutchman came back to the hotel room, I could spell both disbelief and triumph in his face. Disbelief, that he had to go to great lengths in translating without having to use words. Triumph, that he was able to do it.

I have to give Dutchman all the credit for managing to survive amidst being lost in translation! Bravo, bravo, bravo! =)

What we have learned here so far is that even though most Japanese people cannot converse an intelligible two-way communication in English, they will however go out of their way to help you. Which was with our case. The Japanese has a culture where they must be in harmony with nature and with other people, and that they need to put the welfare of others first before theirs.

In fact, during our stay in Tokyo, Japan, we have also experienced being helped by locals, with the aid of very little or almost no English at all. Such as when we got so frustrated searching for our hotel via our mobile phone’s GPS, a man came up to us to offer help. Then at a restaurant, we accidentally left our hotel room key. The wait staff searched for us on a bike on the streets and found us! Two girls also assisted me to get to the right terminal in Narita International Airport.

If we go beyond the spoken and written language that we are more attuned into, being lost in translation doesn’t always have to be a frustrating experience. We as intelligent human beings are capable of communicating in many other different ways. Through our feelings, our gestures, our body movements and facial expressions, and even through the look in our eyes.

What do they say? Actions speak louder than words?

Travel Period: November 2014
Destination: Chuo (Tokyo), Japan

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Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)

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