Now that we have covered health insurance, medical specialties, and dentists, it seem only fair that we tell you about the ins and outs of your local Japanese pharmacy establishments.

Types of Pharmacies
There are a few types of pharmacies (yakkyoku 薬局 or kusuriya 薬屋) in Japan. The first are the big commercial chains like Matsuo Kyoshi, similar to US counterparts insofar as they sell a variety of food, beer, cleaning supplies and so on in addition to over the counter drugs. However, not many of these big chains fill prescription drugs (shohoyaku 処方薬). If you are filling a prescription at a chain store, make sure to double check to make sure there is a pharmacist on hand.

Another common sight are small, family-run establishments which are almost always found right across the street from a doctors office. These small pharmacies only fill prescriptions and, for the most part, don't sell extra goodies.

Types of Prescription Drugs
Despite being a major drug market, Japan is legendarily strict when it comes to prescription medication. Legal maximum prescription sizes tend to be significantly smaller than the US, and when you want to renew a prescription you need to see a doctor directly. Furthermore, the dosage strength of Japanese medicine is generally weaker than its Western counterparts. 

Also, keep in mind that drugs have different brand names and possibly even slightly different ingredients compared to your home country. Japan does not strictly recognize US Food and Drug Administration approval or the European equivalent so drug makers must go through an additional cumbersome process in order sell their drugs in Japan. Therefore, your drug of choice may not yet be legal here or only available in a different form/dosage. One popular ADD drug, Adderall has actually been illegalized due to fears of over prescription.  

See our previous post on medication side-effects and ingredients.

Filling a Prescription (shohosen 処方箋)
Since all prescriptions must have doctor's original seal, e-prescriptions are pretty much unheard of since seals cannot be transmitted electronically. However, large hospitals and clinics will sometimes offer to fax a copy of your medication to the pharmacy of your choice so it can be ready for you on arrival.

Using Your Drugs
Don't be surprised if a lot of drugs come in the form of granules in little plastic baggies. Be it a cultural thing or some sort pharmaceutical industry quirk, lots of pain killers come in the form of nomi-gusuri (飲み薬) that must be mixed with water and drunk.

Another odd type of drug that appears a lot is the ugai-gusuri (うがい薬) which are solutions that must be mixed and gargled. Usually these types of medications are for sore throats and cough suppression. Even though they may look like cough syrups, make sure not to drink them.

The pharmacist on duty should explain everything to you when you get your drugs and many shops will print out nice detailed sheets with dosage information and instructions in case you need to get your prescription filled at another facility.

  • Japan has a drug market worth 93.2 billion USD, only trailing the USA's ludicrous 301.3 billion USD (Financial Times, 2010). Therefore, just about every tiny hamlet has a fairly extensive collection of pharmaceutical establishments.

Got all that? Pop back to AccessJ soon since our next topic will be over the counter medication.

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