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What to do in case of emergency - in Japan?

Dial 119 in case of fire, rescue or medical emergency. Simple enough right? Well, not if you don't know how to speak Japanese.

In Tokyo, some operators speak English, but there is no guarantee. People love Japan so much they explore every part of the country. I know you are one of them so read on.  Before I give you some basic tips in case of an emergency, let me tell you what I experienced.

We've been living in Japan for a little more than three months - when one typical day -I suddenly felt pain in my lower abdomen.  Around 12 noon, it was just like menstrual cramps.  At 3 PM, I knew there was something wrong. The pain wouldn't go away despite eating, lying belly down, going to the toilet, and drinking over the counter pain killer.  I then decided to call my husband to tell him I can no longer pick up our son at the bus stop at 4:30 PM.  Knowing that my pain tolerance is high, he told me to call the ambulance right away.  At that point, I was already puking what I had for lunch.

I was prepared of course, in case of emergency: refer to the contact list near the landline phone.  I dialed 119... Que horror! It is only in Japanese! I waited for a while just like what I do when I call the banks here... still no English!  I then hurriedly informed my husband.

As a back-up, I dialed the emergency hotline number - where I know the operators definitely speak English.  However, I found out that they can only assist you in knowing what clinic or hospital to go to -- but they cannot help dispatch an ambulance.  As soon as I realized that, I was rude enough to drop the call.  Hey, I was already in so much pain! I was sweating as if it was summertime when it's 22 degrees Celcius.  And picture this: I'm rotating like the hands of a clock on the floor.

As I was crying and screaming, I realized that the pain was just on the lower right side of my abdomen. Could it be appendicitis?  If it was, I needed that ambulance because it felt like something was going to explode!

Meanwhile, my husband canceled his meeting with a big boss and asked for help from his colleagues to get me an ambulance.  In no time at all, I heard the sirens at a distance.  I grabbed my bag (complete with all my ID and health insurance card) and walked outside to meet them.  All good now right? Nope! To my nightmare, it took forever and more puking before the ambulance left!

One, they wanted someone to go with us to the hospital.  My mother in law (who just arrived the day before from the Philippines) should not come with me. I needed her to be there to look after my 5-year old son when he comes home.  We were trying to tell the rescuers that my husband will just follow us to the hospital. Since they don't speak English, of course, they did not understand.  Luckily, my husband arrived and got someone to translate the arrangement in Japanese.

Second, they did not know where to go.  They needed to bring me to a hospital where there is an English speaking doctor, and who can attend to my specific condition.  We gave them the name of a hospital, but that is not where they took me.

When the ambulance finally moved, all I could think of is that I should get a pain killer SOON. It was too painful I wanted to get mad at the rescuers.  However, I had no choice but to handle the pain and trust that they know what they are doing.  Despite all that, I remember my Japanse lesson from that morning and asked, "Byoin made donogurai kakarimasu ka?"  I was relieved when they said, "San-fun, 3 minutes".

As soon I was inside the emergency room, I asked the attending nurse (who can speak English), "Pain killer kudasai."  Too exhausted, I calmed myself to fall asleep even though true to what I heard, the pain killers in Japan are not strong enough.

The scary story doesn't end here of course, because not all nurses and doctors can speak English -- but that's for another article.

Whether you are living in Japan or coming here as a tourist, here are some things you can do in case of an emergency:

1. Save emergency numbers on your phone.

  • 119 - Fire/Rescue/Ambulance (Japanese)
  • 110 - Police (Japanese)
  • 03-5285-8181 - Emergency hotline 9:00 to 20:00  (English/Chinese/Korean/Thai/Spanish)
  • 03-5285-8185 - Emergency translation services 9:00 to 20:00 (English/Chinese/Korean/Thai/Spanish)

2. Prepare a list of people to contact in case of an emergency situation (preferably someone who speaks Japanese).

    I heard a joke that all Filipinos have a relative in Japan.  True or not, try to think if you know someone who lives in Japan.  If they don't know how to speak Japanese, chances are, they know someone who does.

3. Learn some basic Japanese words related to an emergency.

    List down some words that can be useful, it's better if you can access them on your phone. E.g. "Please call an ambulance!" -Kyuukyuusya wo yonde" Don't rely on your memory because you won't remember.  There are a lot of cool apps that are free and can be accessed even when you are offline.  Try out this cool app - Learn Japanese.

4. Bring your health insurance cards or pay for a travel insurance

    All residents in Japan are required to have Japanese health insurance.  It covers 70% of the bill.  If you are a tourist, there are travel insurance available for around $40 and covers up to $20,000 of emergency hospital bills.

Do you still think it's too much? Apply for a credit card with free travel insurance, if you use it to book your tickets. I got an RCBC Platinum credit card. The perks include 15 days of free travel insurance plus access to airport lounges for free (you can even bring guests)!

5. Prepare a list of hospitals with English speaking doctors

  Trust me, you don't want to go to just any clinic or hospital. For my son's 5-year-old check-up, I chose a clinic near our house. It was a mistake. I can't answer the checklist because it's in Japanese, the receptionist couldn't help me because she knows little English, and the doctor does not know the translation of medical terms to English. In order to use their high tech medical equipment, they need to know where to start poking right?

Here's the link to the official guide from Japan National Tourism Organization for Safe Travels in Japan.

I'm sure you are super prepared because you don't want to get lost. You even purchased a SIM card or rented pocket WIFI to access google maps or post pictures in real-time.  You learned some basic Japanese to order food or buy souvenirs.  Why not do these extra steps? You know... just in case.

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