If you stay in Japan long enough, at some point you’ll need to visit the dentist. The experience—from treatment to fees to insurance—may differ quite a bit from your home country. Recently, we met with Dr. Shinnosuke Ryu at his dental clinic in Toranamon Hills to learn more about the most common questions foreign visitors have about dentistry in Japan.

I’ve noticed that, in Japan, teeth are often more yellow in tone compared to Westerners. Why is this?

Your teeth are made up of dentin and enamel. The dentin is the core of the tooth, and, like skin, can come in different colors. Asians have darker pigmentation and this can affect the color of the dentin.

Covering the dentin is the enamel, the clear part of a tooth’s covering that makes it shiny. Asians tend to have a thinner layer of enamel than Westerners, and the color of the dentin is easier to see through this thinner layer, making the teeth look less lustrous.

Orthodontics is very popular in other countries, but doesn’t seem to be in Japan. Why aren’t treatments to straighten teeth more common here?

As you know, in Japan there is a national health insurance system. Because of this, the cost of dental treatment is very affordable. For example, the cost of a root canal in Japan is about ¥10,000 (about $85.00), while the cost in the U.S. is around $2,000. So, with national health insurance, Japanese feel the cost of dental work is not expensive.

In general, orthodontic treatment is usually considered cosmetic, rather than medical, under the national health insurance system. As a result, it isn’t covered. The difference in cost between things that are covered by national health insurance and those that aren’t is very big. Around the world, the cost of orthodontic treatment is about $10,000. This is a lot more than the cost of covered dental treatment, so most Japanese feel the cost is exorbitant.

Why does Japanese orthodontics use metal?

This is also related to the national health insurance system. Metal crowns and fillings are very durable, and are accepted by the system. Ceramic crowns and fillings are considered cosmetic, and therefore fall outside of  national health insurance coverage. Most dentists in Japan can provide ceramic crowns and fillings, it just costs more for the patient.

What are the merits of Japanese clinics and orthodontics compared to those overseas?

I think one of the main benefits is cost. Because of the national health insurance system, the government has a lot more control over the costs of medical goods and services. In the U.S., the cost of medical goods and services is often determined by the hospitals, medical and pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies. In Japan, since the government pays for a majority of the cost, they enforce more uniform, fair, and reasonable pricing for medical goods and services. As a result, all medical services are more affordable and dental treatment in Japan is reasonably priced.

Tornare Dental Clinic. Tel: 0120-648-071. www.rmdcc.com/english/