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Implementing Medical Tourism in Japan- A Cultural Challenge

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As the Asian medical tourism market grows, governments want to map their countries in the industry by initiating committees and actions, as Thailand did recently. However in Japan the idea of an established medical tourism industry remains abstract.

Situated in the northeastern part of Asia, Japan is often seen as a land unto themselves. The area of Japan is equivalent of the size of California and its population, counting over 126 million Japanese, is spread on four main islands.

Winter wonderland, cherry blossom and Harajuku style; for most people Japan is a dream vacation spot, but even though Japan’s government is encouraging tourism to grow the language barrier remains a big turn off for travelers. Medical tourism on another hand is an industry to handle with caution in Japan. Besides being a very domestic corporate country, there is an important lack of enthusiasm from the population and the hospitals in welcoming foreigners.

In addition, compared to other Asian countries, the Japanese government creates the impression of giving lukewarm support to medical travel, combining hard efforts to be part of the medical tourism industry to cultural reticence.


On the contrary, the Japan Medical and Health Center, branch of the Japan Travel Bureau, positions itself in favor of medical tourism. But, even though the JMHC has faith in the medical travel industry’s impact in Japan, as its General Manager and Founder Nobuyoshi Takahashi talks, the medical tourism remains a future concept as it is not set in the population mind yet.

First of all the population is culturally hostile to foreigners. In essence, this animosity towards non-Japanese can be seen as a shield to preserve cultural purity and feed the belief of ethnocentricity. In addition, healthcare wise, Japanese fear that foreigners will have priority or a better treatment than they do, while the healthcare system is supported by the taxpayers. “Japanese citizens will accept this concept gradually as international interaction from a humanitarian and an industrial point of view,” assures Takahashi, “medical tourism will get popular in Japan.”

Far from being won, the government tries to draw the country‘s image as a tourism hub according to Takahashi. “The government developed this project as a new growth strategy, they’ve tried to do it so aggressively since last year, 2009, and the local governments tend to go with them.” But, according to John Wocher, Executive Vice President and Director of International Patient Services Kameda Medical Center, Chiba, Japan, the government is “rather neutral” and not really encouraging hospitals to step in the medical tourism industry.

Indeed, hospitals tend to opt for local rather than international accreditation. Besides not being fully informed about international accreditations, the costs implied are too high and the international criteria very different from the Japanese health system. According to Wocher, Japanese hospitals have no intention to undergo the long process of being JCI accredited, without a little help. (Read our article on Kameda Medical Center)

Even though the system is changing at a very slow pace, the JMHC has good hope for Japan. Takahashi sees medical tourism as the first challenge for Japan to globalize medical services under the current healthcare system.

“We’re facing a lot of problems to develop this project, like Japanese regulations or public opinions,” he says, but the JMHC wants to participate actively in mapping medical tourism in Japan. “Therefore, we should build a business model as soon as possible combining the management strategy of hospitals with the marketing, planning and development, sales and distribution of medical tourism in Japan to offer all the countries supply-chain management as a coordinator in the world.”

The Japanese government also is trying to boost medical tourism and is planning to initiate different actions. Its objectives are making Japan a high class medical tourism destination focusing on the quality of the medical services and the diversity of tourist attractions. The effects are still not visible but the government is taking actions creating committees and plans for the next few years.

The Japanese government wants to transform Japan into a first class healthcare destination putting the emphasis on Japan’s assets and culture including: longevity, oncology, check-ups, preventive medical care, heart disease and cosmetic surgery. To do so, the government set its goals as increasing the number of non-Japanese tourist by 25 million by 2020, facilitating the acquisition of visa for tourists, considering the dispersion of holiday taking and other local holiday systems.

But also creating highly attractive sightseeing spots, everything from marketing to attracting tourists, however stimulating hospitals towards international accreditations and medical tourism is not part of their program.

Already in December 2010, the government announced that starting January 2011, visa requirements for people seeking medical care in Japan will be renewable, multi-entry six-month visas, replacing the single-entry, 90-day visas previously available.

Even though Japan is entering the race, the Asian medical tourism market is expanding at a fast pace. India, Thailand, Malaysia or China are offering competitive prices while Singapore and South Korea are focusing on providing cutting edge technology and ultra-high standard medical services.

Japan is trying hard to be in the race for medical tourism, although it remains the black sheep of the Asian medical tourism market. Culturally, it will be more difficult for Japan than a country such as Thailand, which lives from tourism revenues, to adapt interacting with foreigners. However, the government seems to take into consideration the importance that medical tourism could have on Japan and the great opportunity to show Japan’s high quality healthcare.

About the Author

Anne-Line Crochet is Communications Intern for Medical Tourism Association. With a Masters degree in political science, a Minor in journalism, Anne-Line provides professional expertise to our public relations and editorial functions. Previously a staff writer for French publications Fragil and Ouest-France, she is fluent in English and French; and conversant in Spanish and Russian languages. Anne-Line writes for MTA’s Medical Tourism Magazine and Health Tourism Magazine.

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