The struggle of getting a PCR in Japan

My grandmother in Spain had a kidney stone. She had to be hospitalized for a night, and before she was allowed to use the restroom, the hospital told her that she had to take a PCR — a test to check whether she had contracted Covid-19. It was compulsory and free. It took a few hours to get the result — negative — and she was free to use the bathroom. As simple as that. In fact, you don’t need any reason whatsoever to get tested for free, you simply ask for it. This is how it works in most developed countries, in Europe, North America, and Asia.

The reason I talk about this is because I too had to take a PCR — the difference being that I live in Japan. And the experience couldn’t have been any more different.

I had a better reason than my grandmother to get tested for the coronavirus, and yet it was a real struggle to be allowed to take one without paying a private clinic the exorbitant amount of 30,000 yen.

This is how it went: a couple of weeks ago the government’s Covid-19 exposure notification app (COCOA) told me that I had been exposed to the virus, i.e. that I had been within one meter of an infected person for over fifteen minutes. It was the day I went to a house renovation company, as I’m moving, so it was possibly on the train there.

Obviously I was worried. I asked my workplace how I should proceed, as I still go to the office daily. They said that I should continue to work as usual if I don’t show any symptoms. I could take time off, but it would be unpaid. I found that to be not very helpful and outright dangerous, so I took the issue in my own hands and tried to get tested before I could continue my daily routine. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy.

First of all, the exposure notification application itself is notoriously buggy, and my notification simply disappeared. It was there, I tapped on it, it asked me to update the app before opening it, and once I did the notification was gone. Great. After some research, I found out that it was a common bug and was able to find proof of exposure in the phone, a piece of code that said “1” instead of “0” buried in the settings. I sent a message to the email provided in the app, but they were slow to reply.

Obviously, I didn’t want to wait and called some coronavirus exposure hotlines that I found online. They weren’t much better. Even after repeatedly explaining the situation, they asked me questions like “have you been exposed to an infected person?” That’s the whole reason I’m calling! I’m guessing that they have a list of questions that they must ask every time, but it really was an exercise in frustration. I was directed to a different phone number several times, and even to the original phone number again. After four phone calls, they just said “find a doctor who will test you”. Well, thanks, you could have told me that from the beginning.

After doing some research it was obvious that the rules on what constitutes a valid reason to get a free test were a tad unclear. Suspecting being infected is usually not enough, there has to be evidence of exposure. Up until September, a COCOA notification wasn’t even considered proof of exposure! Having serious symptoms also helps, but that wasn’t the case with me, as I didn’t have any. Just a reminder that 30% of infected people are asymptomatic.

I finally found a clinic that was a bit lenient and that would accept that piece of code as proof that I had been exposed, as they knew the app was buggy. Other clinics would probably require the proper notification. Just in case, I said that I had been having a fever, so they would take it seriously. I didn’t want to take any chances. I made an appointment for the next day, and got the result the day after that — negative.

At that point I was still in touch with the app people through their email. By the time they had sent me the third reply it had been three days and I knew I was negative. Their reply amounted to “it could possibly be a bug because it’s an older version”, but even then they weren’t sure. They basically admitted that there is no point to their app and have no idea what to do, and by the time they told me so I could have infected everyone at the office.

Thankfully the ordeal is over, but it really was frustrating, and I got a shrug of the shoulders from everyone I contacted: my workplace, the people in charge of the app, the people on the phone… these are run by the government! Even doctors are sometimes not sure.

I mentioned earlier that it’s much easier to get tested in Spain and other developed countries. Indeed, Spain has tested 56% of the population. Japan has tested 3%, and that is mostly in the last few months.

This lack of testing has real effects and endangers people. Back in March, during the state of emergency, my two of my (Japanese) relatives died in the same week. One died from pneumonia and the other from cancer complications. They did not get tested, despite how suspicious it seemed at the time. We will never know if the virus had anything to do with it.

Things are better now, and more people are getting tested, though many of them resort to paying the 30,000 yen fee. Obviously, Japan is doing relatively well compared to most Western countries, though not too well compared to the rest of East Asia, and it’s precisely the fact that Japan tests so few people that makes it hard to trust the numbers.

There’s still a long ways to go for Japan to catch up to other developed nations when it comes to testing, and a lot more the government could be doing. Testing most people in the country would still probably be cheaper than the Olympics will cost, think about it. For now, our best hope is that everyone is careful, and that everyone can be vaccinated as soon as possible. Hopefully 2021 will be better.

Hi, I’m Sergio.
I’m from Spain, lived in the UK for seven years and came to Japan in 2012.
I majored in journalism in London and have been teaching English in Tokyo.
I like traveling, cycling, photography, movies, and spending time with friends.
I wrote articles about life in Japan as a foreigner and anything that I might find interesting.
My email is ” “, by all means contact me about anything!


Related links:
How to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Japan during the pandemic
Health insurance system in Japan:健康保険制度(けんこうほけんせいど)
Hospital System in Japan
A flow of getting medical checkup:診察の流れ




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