As the number of foreign visitors to Japan continues to rise, dispensing pharmacies and drugmakers are stepping up efforts to better serve customers who speak little Japanese.
In the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, pharmacists, along with doctors and nurses feel strong need to help visitors from overseas and resident foreigners understand medicines prescribed to them.
The number of foreign visitors to the country topped 10 million a year for the first time in 2013 and hit 24 million in 2016, according to government data.
In Otemachi, a major business and financial district in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, one of the Ain drugstores often receives customers of different nationalities -- serving six or seven a day is not unusual -- as there is a clinic in the same building frequently visited by foreigners.
The drugstore's parent company, Sapporo-based Ain Pharmaciez Inc., assigns staff proficient in English to the Otemachi store.
Miho Mitadera, the head of the store, said that while doctors explain medicines to their patients, pharmacists also need to describe how and when the drugs should be taken, or how to use medical devices like inhalers.
Foreign customers often write down pharmacists' explanations but stores must also provide packages and written directions that are helpful for them, she said.
In addition to language problems, there are cultural and custom differences that pharmacists need to bear in mind, she pointed out.
For instance, she said, "there seem to be few powder medicines in the United States, so I've been asked whether they dissolve powder medicines in water," while it is common knowledge for Japanese that such medicines are to be taken as they are with water.
For those who speak foreign languages other than English, her store has subscribed to a telephone-based service to have interpreters knowledgeable with medical terminologies.
An outlet of Nozomi pharmacy in Tokyo's Koto Ward, meanwhile, uses a notebook on which expected conversations with foreign customers are written in Japanese and English, together with some illustrations.
Staff here can communicate with foreign customers by pointing at the notebook.
The pharmacy is located in a neighborhood with many residents who came from India and Nepal on business, bringing their families along with them.
Sometimes mothers with children from such families visit the pharmacy to get medicines prescribed by a pediatric hospital nearby. They do not necessarily speak Japanese.
Haruka Hirose, a pharmacist at the store, came up with the idea of compiling the conversation notebook after discovering Joho Center Publishing Co.'s "point-and-speak phrasebook of travel" very useful during her travel abroad.
"Do you speak Japanese?" the notebook begins. It continues to questions about such subjects as health insurance and personal medication-record pocketbooks used in the Japanese medical scenes.
The Nozomi pharmacy is one of 22 stores pharmacy chain operator Forall runs in the Kanto region centering on the greater Tokyo area.
"There should be no mistakes in taking medicines," said Yoshiko Amemiya, a senior manager of Forall. "We should bear in mind the importance of maintaining the safety and security of medicines for customers including foreigners."
Forall plans to expand measures to become more foreigner-friendly, she said. The measures include introducing English conversation classes for employees and compiling an English communication notebook to be used for nutritional guidance.
As for drugmakers, an industry group named RAD-AR Council Japan has been intensifying its efforts to translate drug information leaflets, which drugmakers distribute to pharmacists, into English.
Pharmacists use the leaflets as a reference when they explain about effects and side-effects of medicines to customers.
In 2010, less than 10 percent of the leaflets had been translated into English, prompting calls for a greater effort. If there were at least English versions, translation into other languages would be easier, drugmakers were told.
The group, whose name comes from its report "Risk/benefit Assessment of Drugs-Analysis and Response," has been setting guidelines for definitions and a uniform writing style for drug explanations.
By now, 6,700 of a total of 15,600 existing leaflets have been translated into English. The proportion is still only a little over 40 percent.
"We want to increase the number (of English-version leaflets) to at least 10,000 by the 2020 Olympics," said Osamu Kurihara, head of the group's "concordance committee."
The group has released the English-version explanations along with Japanese versions on its internet website as well.
The site should be useful for not only pharmacists but also Japanese who travel overseas carrying their medicines, he said, adding the group is also preparing communication tools to be used at drugstores.