Vacines in Japan

I thought it would be much easier to get my kid vaccinated in Japan. Turns out, I was wrong. Oh boy, was I wrong. The nuances of vaccines in Japan are much to subtle and serpentine for my poor little brain.  


I went into the whole process of vaccinating my daughter with a bit of a lefty-crunchy-granola-crazy-bob-cat mindset. Ohhhhhhh…..vaccines are DANGEROUS, or so I thought, I'd better be careful, and do things slowly and deliberately. Because obvoiusly doing things the hippie way signifies my parental superiority. Obviously. A modified, Dr. Searsian approach to vaccines was what I decided to go with. And that was a huge mistake. This is why:


Vaccines in Japan are Different


Japanese and American vaccine schedules are different. For a incomprehensible guide to the differences, see here. The Japanese health authorities recommend different vaccines (here), given at different times, some of which are mandated by the government, some of which are voluntary. Some vaccines are given at your local pediatrician's office, some are given at the Ward Health Office. 


Mandatory Vaccines in Japan:


3 Months - DPT (Diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus)  then again at 4 months, and 6 months & 18 months

3 Months - BCG (Tuberculosis)

6 Months - Polio - and again at 18 months

3 Years - MR (Measals and Rubella) - Total of 3 shots given over a period of several weeks / months


The main differences in the schedule are as follows:


Japanese babies receive the BCG vaccine at 3 months, and it is not given at all in the US.

The Polio vaccine in Japan is a live virus, given orally, whereas the American version is a killed virus, given by injection. There is a greater risk associated with the oral vaccine, but it also offers greater protection against polio (I know this because a very smart doctor friend told me. So therefore you can believe me. It's okay.)

Japanese kids get measles  and rubella vaccine at 3 years, but American kids measles, mumps, and rubella at 1 year.


Vaccines In Japan are Administered More Cautiously


In America we're* all about efficiency: get that kid into the office, load him up with needle sticks, and see him back in a few months.  In Japan, in my experience any way, doctors typically administer one vaccine at a time. Just one. This is music to my crazy-bob-cat-hippy hears, but it is annoying on so many levels. 


  1. It requires several trillion visits to the doctor's office, each one of which you pay for

  2. Your kid, after one or two trillion visits, begins to understand that the doctor is going to jab her with a sharp pointy thing and preemptively freaks out as you approach the doctor

  3. Veering away from the standard vaccine schedule in any way necessitates a massive planning operation. Some vaccines require a month long vaccine-free period after their administration, while some only require a week between vaccines. Further, some vaccines are given by the pediatrician whenever you want, but some are given by the health office only on about 6 days per year. Wrapping your head around the complexities of the system is well nigh impossible.


*I use the term we here even though I'm Canadian. I spend enough time in the US to consider myself an Am-Can hafu. 


Your Doctor Won't Tell You What To Do:


I've written before that on the whole, I'm pleased with healthcare in Japan. However, once source of frustration is my perception of poor communication between my doctor and me. This isn't necessarily a language thing, rather, it's cultural. It is expected that patients defer to the doctor, the doctor tells them what to do, no questions asked. No discussion, no diversion.


I come in, a foreigner, wanting to do things differently. This upsets the relationship balance. Now, suddenly, I'm in the driver's seat, and the doctor is following. He's not advising me, but doing my bidding. Which is not what I want. I'd prefer to be an active participant, involved in the decision making, but ultimately following the doctor's advice.


The problem with my atypical approach to vaccinating my child in Japan is that there are all sorts of complicating factors (see above), about which I had no idea. Because I've upset the relationship balance and my doctor is no longer driving the process, he is not warning me about these complications. The result is that now, I have NO IDEA when my child will ever get the polio vaccine because she just got her measles vaccine and all the polio dates are within the one month inter-vaccine rest period and omg gah headdesk. 


The Bottom Line:


Follow the standard american vaccine schedule, ONLY IF you have a doctor who is used to treating American patients and has access to all of the American vaccines (american polio vaccine, for instance, is hard to get.) If not, FOLLOW THE JAPANESE SYSTEM OMG IT'S TOO HARD OTHERWISE. And above all, DO NOT attempt a lefty hippie fairy dust triple axel vaccine schedule. Because you will not stick the landing.