During your stay in Japan, you may find yourself coming down with a sudden headache, nausea, sore throat, or in a worse case scenario, bad diarrhea. Maybe you ate something bad. Or, maybe you caught something while traveling.

This is a guide for learning how to understand the hiragana, katakana, and kanji on labels for common medicines that can be found in drugstores across Japan. 

It includes a list of common symptoms, a breakdown of how to read the directions, and some basic guidelines for figuring out the ingredients.

If you experience any kind of severe symptoms, please go to your nearest clinic or hospital to receive proper medical assistance.

I am simply a teacher that has gotten sick one too many times from my students, and I’ve had to become familiar with various Japanese medications that can easily be bought over the counter at most drugstores.

Healthcare in Japan is very cheap (if you have Japanese health insurance), so it could actually cost you less to visit a clinic and receive medicine directly from a doctor than to purchase a similar kind at your nearby drugstore.

Many brands that are available over the counter are just weaker versions of what you can get from a doctor, but they’ve marked up the price. I’ve visited the clinic and gotten 4 medications for around 2,000 yen ($20) before! That was to treat a bad case of the flu.

READ: How Much Spending Money Should You Bring to Japan?

I’ve also had to visit the emergency room late at night, and only paid around 5,000 yen ($50) to be seen and treated by really great doctors in under an hour. My point is go visit the doctor first, and only opt for the stuff at the drugstore if what you’re experiencing is really minor and will probably clear up in a day or two.

How to Read Cold Symptoms in Japanese

Buy Medicine in Japan - Reading the Labels
What a typical Japanese medicine box looks like.

First, we’ll look at the most common symptoms you may experience, and what they are called in Japanese. Usually these are written in large characters on the front of the medicine’s packaging.

Sometimes the symptoms are written hiragana, but you’ll most likely see them written in kanji if one is available. I’ll include romaji for those who can’t read Japanese, but you’ll never actually see this written on the labels.

Try to match the hiragana or kanji that you see in the chart, but keep in mind that they may vary slightly. I suggest asking one of the shopkeepers if you’re not sure what you found is for the symptom you want to treat. Google translate could also be a big help.

Allergies アレルギーArerugī
Athlete’s foot水虫 Mizumushi
Conjunctivitis (Eye Infection)結膜炎けつまくえんKetsumakuen
Congestion (Stuffy Nose)鼻づまりはなづまりHanadzumari
Hay Fever花粉症かふんしょうKafunshō
Itchiness かゆみKayumi
Insect Bites虫さされむしさされMushisasare
Joint pain関節の痛みかんせつのいたみKansetsu no itami
Rash かぶれ・あせもKabure/Asemo
Runny Nose鼻水はなみずHanamizu
Sneezing くしゃみKushami
Sore Throatのどの痛みのどのいたみNodoitami

You can also find the symptoms listed on the back of the packaging. They are usually somewhere near the top under a section called 効能 (kōnō) or 効果 (kōka), and sometimes includes more than what is printed on the front.

How to Read Medicine Directions in Japanese

Now that you have an idea of what symptoms to look for on the medicine packaging, next we’ll take a look at how to read the dosage amounts and directions for taking them. Obviously not all of the directions will be the same, and it’s impossible to include every possible variation you may come across.

You can usually find the directions printed on the back of the packaging, and most will display the information in a similar fashion. Use this as just a basic guideline to reading what the label says, but ALWAYS consult with a native Japanese speaker if you are uncertain. Overdosing is a dangerous risk that you don’t want to put yourself in. 

Most of the medicine I’ve bought in Japan specifically states that it is not to be given to anyone younger than 15 years old! Please be careful.

15 years old and above15才以上さいいじょうSaiijō
Younger than 1515才未満さいみまんSaimiman
Do Not Take服用しないことふくようしないことFukuyō shinai koto
Single Dose Amount一回量いっかいりょうIkkairyō
Doses per day1日服回数1にちふくようかいすう1 nichi fukuyō kaisū
1 Pill/Tablet1錠1じょう1 Jō
1 Time/3 Times 1回・3回いっかい・さんかいIkkai/Sankai
After eating食後しょくごShokugo
Within ~ minutes~分以内~ぷんいない~puninai
Within ~ hours~時間以内~じかんいない~jikaninai
Water/Warm Water水・お湯みず・おゆMizu/Oyu

The directions might seem a bit confusing, so I’ll provide a picture of some medicine I bought recently to help alleviate my hay fever. The directions are found on the left side in the white box. The first sentence explains when to take the medicine.

Buy Medicine in Japan - Reading the Directions
Example of directions on Japanese medicine.
用法・用量 Usage/Dosage
次の量を、食後なるべく30分以内に水又はぬるま湯で服用してくださいPlease take the following amount with water or lukewarm water within 30 minutes of eating.

The age (年齢) rows and columns say that a single dose amount is 3 pills (錠) that can be taken up to 3 times (回) per day if the person is 15 years or older.  For anyone under the age of 15 it says ❌服用しないこと, which means that it absolutely must not be taken.

Where to Find the Active Ingredients Label

Fortunately, the active ingredients in Japanese medicines are usually written in katakana. This means that even if you’re just starting to learn Japanese, you’ll be able to decipher what kind of ingredients are listed without much of a challenge.

Some drugs may have multiple names in English, so I recommend googling each active ingredient to get a good idea of what it’s used for, which drugs it’s commonly found in, what kind of side effects it may cause, and any harmful drug interactions you should be aware of.

It can be dangerous to mix medications, so please confirm with your doctor if the drugstore brands are safe to take along with prescription drugs or not.

We can find the active ingredient information under the 成分 (せいぶん) or 分量 (ぶんりょう) section of the packaging. Notice on the example picture below that it says the maximum dosage per day is 9 pills for this particular medicine.

The recommended amount should not be exceeded even if symptoms persist. This box of cold medicine has 5 active ingredients for targeting fevers, sore throats, runny and stuffy noses, and coughing.

Buy Medicine in Japan - Active Ingredients
Example of active ingredients in Japanese cold medicine.

The numbers you see listed in milligrams (mg) to the right is how much of the active ingredients is contained in a full day’s supply of the medicine. For example, if you were to consume the maximum dosage of 9 pills, it would include a total of 450mg of Ibuprofen. If we break it down, each pill has 50mg of Ibuprofen, and a regular dose of 3 pills would be 150mg.

Buy Medicine in Japan - Number of pills
Number of pills in the box.

Lastly, let’s take a look at the bottom of the cold medicine box. Here we can see that it contains a total of 36 pills. It would last you 4 days if you took the maximum dosage each day.

Next to that it says what the medicine is intended for. We can tell that it is cold medicine, because it says 風邪 (かぜ), which is what Japanese people call the common cold.

The active ingredients in cold medicines vary, and some may work better for you than others. I suggest comparing and keeping notes on which ones work well for you and which don’t. I take エスタック to fight off sneezing and blowing my nose every 5 seconds when spring starts.

The hay fever version works extremely well for me, but this one intended for colds doesn’t have a noticeable effect on my nose. Your experience may be the complete opposite though, because no two bodies are exactly alike. 

Common Painkiller Brands in Japan

Buy Medicine in Japan - Ibuprofen Painkiller
EVE (Ibuprofen) in Japan.

Okay, so if you’ve made it this far into the post, you probably have a headache, and you’re wondering where you can buy some Ibuprofen or Tylenol to get rid of it. I actually took Ibuprofen for the first couple years when I moved here without even knowing what it was!

That’s because just like Japanese people shorten the names for McDonald’s to マック, and Starbucks to スタバ, they shortened Ibuprofen to イブ (Ibu). The packaging has EVE written in big bold letters, and I just never made the connection that EVE somehow referred to “Ibu” in Ibuprofen.

Learning this also made me come to the realization that I’ve been consuming significantly smaller doses of painkillers than I used to when I lived in the US. I follow the directions on the EVE packaging and take 2 pills if I have a headache, sore throat, cramps, or any other kind of pain. It’s usually sufficient in knocking it out within 30 minutes or so.

Like many brands, EVE has different variations you can buy, but the one that I have only contains 150mg of Ibuprofen in a single dose. This was surprising, because I had been taking 500mg minimum in the US, because I was under the silly impression that that was how much I needed!

One dose of EVE has been enough to get rid of my worst period cramps (sorry if this is too much info). As I mentioned before though, your experience may be completely different, so please consult with your doctor first. Especially if you’re suffering from severe and/or unusual pain!

Tylenol and Other Popular Brands

If you prefer to take acetaminophen (アセトアミノフェン) instead, you can actually find regular Tylenol. This is a bit easier to recognize in Japan, because the packaging will actually have “Tylenol” written on it in English.

However, the strength of Tylenol that you’ll find in Japan will be much lower than what you can buy in the US. I think the last time that I saw “Extra Strength Tylenol” when I visited the states, it was somewhere around 800mg per pill!

So far the highest that I’ve seen while shopping in Japan is 300mg. You’ll probably have to visit a clinic if you’ll need stronger pain medicines. Acetaminophen is great for reducing fevers, but it can also cause liver damage if taken in high quantities.

Please read the labels carefully, and talk with your doctor if any over-the-counter painkillers you’ve tried aren’t sufficient enough at relieving the pain you’re experiencing.

Bufferin is probably another brand that many people from the west are familiar with. I’ve personally never tried it, but I’ve seen it in every major drugstore that I’ve been to.

If you’re wondering where your nearest one is, a drugstore is called 薬局 (やっきょく).  Some examples of major chains are HAC, Matsumoto, and FitCare.

I hope that this information has been helpful, and that it will be used wisely. Remember that I’m not a professional, and that this is just a rudimentary guide to help you through some common minor symptoms.

Please leave a comment below to let me know what you think, or to share any helpful tips and advice you may have for other people visiting or living in Japan. Thanks!