Taking an ambulance ride in Japan is probably the last thing on your mind when living or traveling in Tokyo or other areas of the country. However unlikely the prospect may seem it’s always best to be prepared. Here’s what you can expect from ambulance services and EMTs in Japan in the event you need critical medical attention.
Ambulance services in Japan are operated in close cooperation with municipal fire departments that train and support the EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) on-board. Ambulances generally have between two and three EMTs per vehicle.
The emergency phone number to reach ambulance services in Japan is 119.
In major metropolitan areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, English-speaking operators may be available, although this is not guaranteed. Smaller towns are most unlikely to have English-speaking dispatchers.
When to call an ambulance
Ambulances in Japan, like in most countries, are reserved for critical emergency situations. Unfortunately, there have been quite a few recent cases where people call ambulances for minor injuries. In response to this misuse of resources, The Tokyo Fire Department launched a PR campaign a few years ago to educate people on how and when to call for services.
In general, if you are not in critical condition and can get to the hospital by yourself or someone can assist you safely, do not call an ambulance. In other words, ambulance services are understood to be reserved for those who are incapacitated and in need of urgent care.
If your medical emergency requires an ambulance, you or the person calling 119 should tell the operator the nature of the emergency and report symptoms or the condition of the injury in as much detail as possible. In addition, try to convey your location to the best of your ability through landmarks or addresses posted on telephone poles. Please keep in mind that unlike in some countries where emergency services are able to triangulate a call and determine a location through cell phone towers, Japan is not yet using this technique.
What to expect once paramedics arrive
Tokyo is famous for its traffic jams and that can impede the movement of emergency services. While ambulance response takes 7-12 minutes on average, at peak traffic hours it could take as long as 20 minutes for them to arrive. In other areas of Japan, the time will of course vary depending on traffic and the location of the ambulance depot.
Once the ambulance arrives the paramedics will assess your condition and then determine the most appropriate destination for care. It will not always be possible for you to go to the hospital of your choosing, and in some cases ambulances have to search around for a hospital with available capacity. A family member or friend may be able to ride with you to the hospital, but that decision is left to the sole discretion of the paramedics on the scene.
EMTs in Japan, compared with those in some countries, can appear limited in the procedures they are legally allowed to perform. They focus on stabilizing the patient, stopping blood loss, collecting information and transporting patients safely to a medical facility.
If you’re conscious when paramedics arrive on the scene, you should expect a number of questions relating to the incident, ranging from “What did you eat this morning?” and “Do you have any medical allergies?” to queries about what led up to the emergency. Your status will be radioed ahead to the hospital so staff there will be ready to treat you upon arrival. If your emergency is a road accident or involves another party, the police may also become involved.
Emergency hospitals in Japan do not always have English-speaking staff available. If at all possible, an interpreter or friend with decent bilingual skills should be found to assist with any additional procedures such as hospital admittance, surgery and any paperwork.
The silver lining in what otherwise can be a very tramatic experience is that ambulance rides are free in Japan. This practice differs from many other countries around the world. Naturally, there are costs associated with medical emergency care that will vary depending on the severity of your situation and the examinations and treatment required.
HealthyTOKYO has put together a list of hospitals with after-hours emergency care in many places in Japan.
Critical Knowledge Points:
Emergency Services Phone Number: 119
Paramedic: 救急救命士 (kyu-kyu-kyu-mei-shi)