Diabetes in Japan

Diabetes in Japan is a major problem, with the government taking active measures to curb the disease. Many attribute the high consumption of white rice and noodles as one of the culprits. Japan has many healthy options to reduce the risk of diabetes and keep it under control when it does arise.


What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is characterized as the inability of the body to produce sufficient insulin, or to use it properly. The function of the hormone insulin is to let your cells take up and process glucose, an essential unit of energy. Deprived of glucose, cells start to think that they’re starving, which can lead to a variety of complications. For instance, the body will convert fats and proteins into sugar, producing chemicals known as ketones in the process. Accumulation of ketones causes the blood to become acidic, a condition called ketoacidosis, which in turn can induce a comatose state and later, death.

There are two major types of diabetes, Type I and Type II. Type I diabetes is often diagnosed in childhood or early adulthood, and is the result of the body’s immune system accidentally attacking and destroying the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. This condition is less common than Type II diabetes, which usually manifests itself in adulthood and is caused by either the body becoming resistant to insulin or not producing enough of it. The mechanisms behind these processes are not yet fully elucidated, but factors such as genetics, obesity, and sedentary lifestyle are thought to play a role.


What role does diabetes in Japan play?

In 2015, there were 7.2 million cases of diabetes in Japan. This astonishing number is the reason that Japan has the fifth largest population of diabetic patients worldwide. The increase in prevalence of diabetes can likely be attributed to the increase in dietary fat and protein consumption, as well as the expanding elderly population. With respect to Type I diabetes, Japan has a lower rate of incidence than many countries in the world; it has one of the lowest childhood-onset rates overall. Thus, Type II diabetes accounts for the majority of cases.

The increasing rate of diabetes onset is significant because this condition is closely associated with a number of serious diseases. For instance, some of the risks associated with diabetes include increased susceptibility to heart disease and kidney damage. However, it is important to note that these complications can be mitigated with proper management, including both medical treatment and lifestyle changes. The Japan Diabetes Complications Study followed 2033 diabetic patients for 8 years and found that rates of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and eye disease were notably decreased in patients that made lifestyle changes such as eating better and losing weight, in addition to taking appropriate medication.


Planning to visit Japan? Here’s what you need to know

If you have diabetes and are planning on visiting Japan, there are a number of considerations to keep in mind. Firstly, be careful with what you eat! Many Japanese meals include high carbohydrate content, due to foods such as white rice and noodles. Be sure to monitor your blood glucose level in advance of each meal and adjust your intake of these foods accordingly. You may also need to adjust your treatment regimen, if you are currently taking any medications. For example, the maximum licensed dose of metformin, which is a commonly prescribed anti-diabetic drug worldwide, is 750mg/day in Japan—this is much lower than prescription practices in the West. It is important to keep a copy of your prescriptions with you and to carry enough medication to sustain you for the duration of your stay, if possible.

Always carry proof of health insurance so as to ensure that you will not be refused treatment in an emergency. The Japanese healthcare system is publicly funded, but many hospitals are privately owned and operated. As such, the costs of care are covered through an insurance system of which everyone is a part. If you are a tourist, travel insurance will keep you adequately covered, but be prepared to pay with cash or credit card in many instances and seek reimbursement from your insurance company thereafter. Make sure you ask the hospital for the necessary paperwork to send to your insurance company. Expats must enroll in the state insurance system after a year of living in Japan.