Getting the Flu in Japan

(This post was originally written several years ago for the Far Away Blog (2012), but the experience still holds true today in 2017).


It’s an interesting thing getting sick in another country. I’ve been getting sick in other countries for years and each time, it’s an experience. Obviously, things are simply done differently in other places. Sometimes they seem normal and sometimes they don’t.

Earlier this week I unfortunately got my butt kicked by a bad case of the seasonal flu. Yup, it was my turn. Not sure how much it helps, but normally my wife and I get our seasonal flu shots in late autumn. Last year for one reason or another, we simply forgot. I know many out there will argue that the seasonal flu shot offers at best, minimal protection, but at least it is something. This year we didn’t get our shots and we both got sick.

Now of course there is nothing out of the normal about getting the flu, but what seems odd to me and many other non-Japanese living in Japan is how seriously it is taken here. People talk about getting the flu-like we might talk about getting a much more serious ailment. Here, the news and citizens in general really talk it up as if it is a life-altering event.

Tapping into the far recesses of my brain, I seem to remember being diagnosed with the flu in Canada very quickly. The doctor would quickly name a list of flu symptoms and ask me if I had them. If I answered “yes”, he would make a prescription for 10-12 days of antibiotics and send me on my way.

The other day here it was quite a different story. Upon arriving at my family doctor’s office they asked me to take my temperature (standard practice for any visit to a doctor’s office in Japan). I handed the thermometer back to the nurse and once she saw my temperature was 38.5C, she gave me a mask to wear and made me sit in a back room away from the main waiting room.

Japanese people tend to wear masks as a way of preventing being sick and once they are sick as a way of keeping those around them safe from their ailment.

The doctor then gave me an “Influenza test.” With a special kit, he took a cotton swab about three inches long and shoved it deep into my sinus cavity and swabbed. This by no means was a pleasant experience. After that, the swab was placed in a solution and within 5 minutes we had the results. He said, “I’m afraid you have Type A Hong Kong Influenza.” He made it seem so serious and dire. I was starting to get worried.

Prescription medicine in Japan normally doesn’t come in pill form. It comes as powder in small individual packets. You simply rip the end off, take the powder and rinse it down with water.


While waiting for my prescription to be filled, I Googled that strain of influenza and was quickly relieved to find out that all of that very dramatic talk meant I simply had caught a seasonal flu virus.

Amazing how dramatic people can be about something in Canada, we are so casual about.

Yup….being sick in another country can be a strange experience!


An additional point (2017) about treatment for the flu or other common ailments in Japan is that you normally will only be given a 3-4 day cycle of medicine which means you will have to head back to the doctor at least one more time before you start to recover. Doctors do get compensation from the government each time a patient visits so that might have something to do with the short cycles of drugs. The more patients visit, the more the doctor profits (my personal theory).



The writer:

Kevin O’Shea is the host of the Just Japan Podcast and the Just Japan News Podcast. He is also the guy behind JustJapanStuff. Kevin is a Canadian educator who lives in Kobe, Japan with his family.

Follow him on Twitter: @madformaple




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