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My Japan Emergency Stories

A few days ago, I called the police for the first time in Japan. An older gentlemen at the train station didn’t respond to an attendant’s questions. They were simple ones, too.

“Sir,” the attendant asked in Japanese, “do you have 160 yen? If you don’t, you can’t get on the train.”

I could tell the man was in his 70’s, that age where most people assume he’s a typical yoparai oji-san, someone too drunk to really deal with except to send him home or throw him in jail to sleep it off. I watched carefully, alarm bells ringing in my head. Drunk guys love to talk, whether young or old, they try to joke or shout and just in general be annoying.

He wasn’t doing any of that. He kept putting up one arm, but his other arm stayed at his side. He said something nonsensical, something along the lines of, “I’m trying to find the way.” The train attendant didn’t seem amused, and told him curtly the same line again.

I noticed that the older man’s smile was asymmetrical, his right eye wasn’t opened all the way. I stayed out off to the side, because maybe the train attendant will do something. Instead, he just blocked the way, told the man gently and politely to leave.

The old man started shuffling onto the road. I kept my eye on him, noticing a bunch of bad signs. He wasn’t walking properly at all. His left leg was working fine, but his right leg wasn’t mobile at all, he was lugging it with him like a prop stick. All the facts together made me think he’s either having a stroke, or was the victim of a bad one in the past.

People with strokes can have serious mental issues years after, forgetfulness and confusion in the top two. He couldn’t speak well, another symptom. I wanted to be really sure, so I went up to talk to him.

“Hello,” I said in Japanese, “are you alright?”

It took him a long time to respond, “No, I’m not.” His face contorted, but only the left side. His right eye and the right side of his mouth didn’t move in concert with everything else.

“Where do you need to go?” I was perfectly willing to call a taxi for him, get him to a hospital.

He lunged back and forth, teeter-tottering, obviously upset. He said, “Morisaki!”

“Morisaki?” I got closer. He didn’t smell of alcohol at all, just that musty smell of someone who’d been out and about in the heat all day. I checked for Morisaki on maps in my phone. It was an hour away! Way too far to give him a taxi there. It would clean me out.

“Where are you going?!” He suddenly yelled. I stared at him, befuddled.

“Uh, over there,” I pointed towards down the road. My apartment was a good ten, fifteen minute walk down and around.

“I don’t understand!” He shouted, gurgled more like. His face was a grimace, he reached towards me.

I backed up and shook my head. “Sorry, excuse me.” I turned around and started walking away. I didn’t want him to get so distraught in his confusion that he hurt me.

I dialed 110 after I got to a place not far off and safe. The police picked up and immediately asked me if I was in danger.

“Uh, no,” I said in Japanese, “I am a foreigner, so I need English services, please.” [Ano, chotto, watashi wa gaikokujin desu. Soshite, eigo no saabisu ga hoshii desu.]

“Oh! Ok, thank you for calling. Please wait while I get an English speaker on the line.” He said, in a bit of keigo, the formal language I’ve yet to master.

The English translator was fast, “Hello! Please tell your emergency.”

“Hi yes,” I explained the situation with the man, keeping it short and to the point. I finished with, “I believe the old man is having a stroke.”

They asked me a few questions, where he was and where I was. I told them the road and the location he was heading towards. The translator would translate my words into Japanese after every two sentences. The cop on the other end figured out pretty quickly what I was talking about and where he was needed.

In less than five minutes, they were dispatching an officer to the scene. I sighed in relief.

“Thank you so much, ma’am! We appreciate this call.” They told me in English and Japanese. I thanked them for being so fast and cordial, and hung up the phone.

I had to help. I couldn’t just leave him alone. I knew how it felt to need help and be all alone. See, while that was the first time I ever called the police, I have called emergency services before.


Two years ago, I was sick as a dog, vomiting and things going wrong the other way too (long story involving problems with my I.B.S.). Over the period of a day, I was constantly sick. By the time the twelve hour mark rolled around, and I was too weak to move out of bed, I called 119.

At the time, I didn’t know that you could request English services. I was not entirely lucid, so I said all of this in Japanese badly, “I need an ambulance. I’m at (AREA) in (THIS CITY) on the second floor. I’m very sick.” [Kyūkyūsha ga hitsuyōdesu. (BASHO) ni (SHI) nikai desu. Watashi wa hontōni byōkidesu.]

The lady understood, told me they were sending an ambulance right away. She stayed with me, asked questions about what building and the color. I gave her the best answers I could, but everything got a bit fuzzy at that point. The ambulance arrived in about seven minutes. I got inside after stumbling down stairs. The ambulance staff set me up on the gurney and took me to a nearby hospital.

I was absolutely distraught, because I’m American. I assumed that ambulances in Japan functioned like in the United States, charging up to $1,000 for a ride. Imagine my relief when I discovered that it was free, and that the whole hospital stay only cost about $300 (45,000 yen). I was shocked and just so grateful.

Some foreigners dislike the emergency services in Japan. Frequently, the complaints come from having to deal with everything in Japanese. I feared that as well. When I got to my hospital, though, one nurse knew conversational level English. Also, other staff members used smartphones or tablets to communicate with me.

The only problem I had was my doctor, as he seemed completely apathetic. He told me my colon was extremely inflamed, he was giving me this medicine, I’d be discharged in a few days. And then he left, and I never saw him again. I stayed for three days and that five minute conversation was all I had as “comforting” from my doctor.

I was worried. Did he actually bother to look at my x-rays? What kind of medicine was he giving me? What were the side effects? Was I going to have problems after this? Would I just end up calling another ambulance later? I had so many questions, but none of the nurses could answer them, because they weren’t my doctor.

I’m not the only one who suffered from this problem, as seen in various news articles and surveys. Generally, foreigners have a hard time with Japanese doctors, men usually who are used to simply throwing down a judgement and not being questioned about it. I ended up turning out fine, but sometimes that is simply not the case, leaving foreigners high and dry without a way to fight for better healthcare.

What I know now, after the fact, is that the American Embassy actually has translators. I could’ve called for one to come and help me, but since I didn’t know about it I just went home to recover. Also, there are also online medical translator volunteers who specialize in helping foreigners. And to have hope for the future, the hospitals in Japan want to have at least one translator per hospital before 2020, but we’ll see how that goes.

Anyways, that helpless and lost feeling was awful. Knowing you’re sick and in pain, but unable to communicate what you need, I understood all of that when I saw the old man. I hope he was treated better by a doctor, I hope the police made sure he got home. I wish someone could’ve been there to help me out when I really needed it. Being alone in Japan is usually fine, but when things go horribly awry it can feel like you’re stuck in a horror movie for a time.

I hope that I’ll never have to call the emergency numbers again, but it helps to be prepared if I have to do it. Eigo no saabisu onegaishimasu are the key words to get an English translator on the phone (the easy way), always remembering 110 for police (警察 keisatsu) but 119 for ambulances (救急車 kyūkyūsha) and firefighters (消防士 shōbō-shi), and having an in person translator service number. I always keep my medical insurance cards on me, too.

As my mom would say, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” Definitely words to live by when living alone in a foreign country.

If you liked this post, please like it and share it! Put down in the comments what you want me to write about next. 

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