Annual Health Check

Japan has a national health care system.  This mean that if you have a job, you likely have medical coverage as well. It can also mean more crowded hospitals with cheaper and sometimes more comprehensive care.

Part of the coverage comes in the form of ‘mandatory’ yearly heath checks.  Every year, people over the age of 20 (that’s the adult age here) are required to have a full physical exam. Depending on age is how complete the exam is, but in essence it’s a full battery of preventative medicine.  Right now as I write this, I’m at a local community center that has been converted to a mobile health complex for the purpose of the check.

The system is well-organized and well-practiced. Everyone chooses a time frame to attend based on a schedule and identifying papers received in the mail or from an employer.  I had to send my ‘reservation’ in to my employer, so perhaps its up to them to decide how mandatory the check is.  After arriving, everyone checks in, and then filter through stations set up to check only one thing. Medical technicians mark in your form along the way.  Not all stops are hit by everyone, but I’ll give you a run-down of what I’ve gone through.

Health’s Course

  1. Check-in: Update contact info and get an identifying number to ensue accuracy
  2. Urine Test: Deliver a paper cup for a test
  3. Height, weight, blood pressure
  4. Standard Medical history interview. They ask about family medical issues, smoking, physical activity, and other items a doctor will discuss later
  5. Gut Check: they measure the circumference of you belly
  6. Eyes, throat, and breathing: A doctor checks heart and breathing with a stethoscope, asks about leg problems.
  7. Pay: for me it only costs 1000 yen for the whole checkup. At this point they might give further tests to take home that might cost extra. None for me this year.
  8. Blood Test: One of the unfortunate things about the check is that you aren’t supposed to eat before. This makes it especially rough if you go in the afternoon.  They ask this so that blood sugar levels don’t get thrown out of whack when they take a blood sample, usually three vials.
  9. Finish!

More on the Health Check

The above check is your relatively standard physical.  For older patients there are a lot more involved checks for various forms of cancer and debilitating diseases.  This year, I only got the most basic check.  In years past (at a different location) I’ve also had my hearing checked and my heart rate recorded. You have some say as to what level of checks you want, and your co-pay will reflect that.

The public aspect of the checks is perhaps the thing that would be most uncomfortable for many westerners.  For us, our personal health is a private thing between doctor and patient.  Here in Japan, since everyone has to go through the same process it’s not possible to do things individually.

That’s not to say things still aren’t private. There’s an element to Japanese culture not found many other places.  Since Japan is an island nation, there are places where people are crowded together, and the only way to maintain social decorum is to ignore, or at least not respond to the things around you.

Often, foreigners comment on the way parents ignore loud children or how people might close a door rather than hold it for you.  These are extensions of the cultural safety mechanism in which people ignore things to maintain a degree of separation.  The same thing comes into play during the health checks.  When you get your height taken, or weighed, they don’t shout the numbers out, but you’re visible to everyone around you.  Still, the other people in the room will likely just ignore you, for the sake of your and their privacy.  Still, most of the time, even this isn’t necessary.  Many things, like when they check your waist or use a stethoscope, are done behind a curtained area.

Over all, it might seem like a waste of time, or an unnecessary embarrassment, but it seems a good and efficient way to ensure most people have at least one chance each year to get preventative checks that can significantly increase the likelihood of catching problems early.