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Visiting a dentist in Tokyo

I kept my cool until I saw my dentist's second bill. "Are you insane?" I squealed. "Is this a joke? You expect me to pay this?!"

Never mind teething problems; I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a bill for ¥550. That's less than you pay for a telephone call to your dentist in South Africa, and I'd just been fitted with a brand-new crown.

Japan, I love you.

Here's the story. My dental dilemma started when a molar that had an old, big filling decided to say sayonara. The back part of the tooth, which held the filling in place, snapped off. I didn't experience any pain, but I realized I wouldn't be able to pretend that nothing had happened. I wanted to do just that, because I'd read so many horror stories about dentists in Japan. 

  • They suck.
  • They're hideously expensive.
  • You have to go back, like, seven times for just a filling!

Thus spoke colleagues, discussions boards and comments sections. I consulted my best buddy Google with trepidation. My search had certain parameters: 

  • I've had zero personal benefit from Abenomics, in other words, I didn't want to sell a kidney in order to save a tooth.
  • I prefer an English-speaking dentist, since I have no idea what root canal treatment would be in Japanese.
  • I prefer a dentist who's trained in the United States. Say what you will about the land of the drones and the home of the Tea Party, but Americans have perfect teeth.

I found a clinic in Roppongi that's affiliated with an American hospital. A check-up costs ¥31 500, a filling is ¥84 000 to ¥168 000, a crown is up to ¥262 000, "orthodontics" (whatever that involves) is ¥1,5 million. Just lop off the last two zeros to get the equivalent price in American dollar.

I fainted and fell off my chair, nearly breaking three other teeth.

As far as I can figure out, this clinic accepts national health insurance for some, but not all, treatments. Many Western/English-speaking dentists in Tokyo are so expensive that they don't deal with national health insurance at all, because that limits expenses.

Before I continue, let me digress briefly to tell you about healthcare in Japan. It has its critics, but I think it's a great system that ensures good healthcare for most of its population.

Japan has two types of health insurance: employees' health insurance (健康保険 kenkō-hoken) and national health insurance (国民健康保険 kokumin-kenkō-hoken) for those who aren't eligible for company insurance. All Japanese citizens and non-Japanese residing in Japan for more than a year are required to enroll, although many foreigners deliberately avoid this payment. If you're curious about costs, your monthly instalments are based on your age and income, but it starts at roughly ¥10 000.

I'm on my employer's so-called "social health insurance and pension" (社会保険 shakai-hoken). All medical expenses are fully covered by employees' health insurance, but I have to use national health insurance for dental treatment. That means I have to cover 30% of my dental expenses myself, and the government (i.e. taxes) takes care of the rest.

That's why I fainted when I read what crowns cost: 30% of ¥262 000 is still a helluva lot of money.

This was an emergency, a Lehman shock, a Eurozone crisis of meltdown proportions. I emailed my colleagues and friends: HALP! Advice arrived, and I opted for the Trust Dental Clinic in Harajuku, partly because it's a convenient location, partly because I grinned when I saw their name. If you're a journalist, you quickly learn that you should never trust anybody who says "trust me". So I chose the trusty one.

I realize that makes no sense whatsoever, but that's the basic operating principle of my entire life.

The seven lucky gods were with me. Dr Oikawa is an excellent dentist with a conservative approach, i.e. he doesn't immediately advise you to replace your crooked gnashers* with perfect white tombstones. He speaks fluent English. He knows more about South African politics than I do. He plays Otto's Classical Music on 1.FM while he works. He's fully aware of the idiosyncrasies of Japan's dental care system and how it can baffle foreigners used to different methods.

(* I have British colonial teeth with an African flavour, in other words, horrendous. I can only pray that others are so captivated by my heavenly blue eyes that they don't notice my numerous other imperfections.)

I had to return three times – that's part of the requirements of national health insurance – but my contribution for a metal crown and a thorough cleaning is roughly ¥6 000.

A good dentist is a precious commodity. This auntie, who's rapidly getting long in the tooth, is happy with her discovery.
His cousin was now of more than middle age, and had nobody's word but her own for the beauty which she said she once possessed. She was lean, and yellow, and long in the tooth; all the red and white in all the toy-shops in London could not make a beauty of her. -- William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond, Esq.

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