There is a lot of confusion around dental care in Japan, and in my experience most people assume that Japanese dental practices aren’t up to the standard of the rest of the world. “Japanese people don’t use fluoride.”, “In Japan, crooked teeth are considered charming.”, etc. There are a lot of rumors, and all of it left me a little apprehensive to visit a Japanese dentist when I first moved to Japan. In response to all of these assumptions around Japanese oral hygiene, I thought I could provide you with my experiences visiting multiple dentists in Japan, dispel some of the rumors around this topic, and give you valuable information on which Japanese products you can buy and what is available.
So, is having crooked teeth in Japan really considered cute? Yes, but not in the way you probably think.
I think a lot of people have this image that Japanese people think all crooked teeth are cute, but the reality is that this is true only in a very specific case. In Japan, crooked teeth are only considered cute in one case, and that is when women have crooked yaeba. Crooked yaeba teeth are considered cute, endearing, and innocent. So, what are yaeba? Yaeba is the Japanese word for double teeth, often colloquially called “vampire teeth” or “canine teeth” in English. While you may not have thought about it, crooked yaeba can be seen in all forms of Japanese media, and especially in anime. Yaeba are synonymous with a cute persona in Japan, with yaeba often being emphasized when a female character is pouting or is generally doing something cute.
Japan has a history of emphasizing the natural imperfections of things
Japan has a long history of “wabi” culture, whereas beauty is found in everyday natural imperfections. Perhaps you seen examples Japan’s Kintsugi ((金継ぎ) culture that has recently trending in the west, where imperfections in pottery are filled in with gold to emphasis their history. This can be thought of as being similar to the idealization of imperfections in Japanese beauty standards for women, where crooked teeth signify a sense of purify and youthfulness. The key here is that he focus is to highlight the history of natural imperfections in an object, rather than trying to hide it. In a country that also has a near century-long culture of emphasizing the kawaii or cute in everything, it’s no surprise that a culture formed around idealizing a cute and natural imperfection that signifies youth and innocence in women. That being said, a lot of models, talent, and actresses in japan will actually wear removable crooked yaeba called “tsuke-yaeba.” This has become a standard of the Japanese talent industry, where people are often expected to have some defining characteristic or trait. This is similar to the way Marilyn Monroe would highlight her signature mole on her right cheek. The practice is different but the goal is similar.
Another rumor: Japanese toothpaste doesn’t have fluoride in it?
Yes! And no. Nowadays most Japanese toothpastes contains fluoride, often with the level of fluoride being a main marketing point. Hence, it’s very easy to find on most packages. In Japanese, fluoride is “Fusso” (フッ素), so you can just look for these characters on whatever you’re buying. The one thing you will want to keep in mind is that many of the toothpaste brands you get for free when staying at hotels in Japan often don’t contain fluoride. I’m…not quite sure why this is, but my suspicion is that longstanding contracts and deals hotel chains have with these companies have little incentive to improve, and changing the toothpaste would disrupt the status quo! The toothpaste harmony, if you will. Besides, it’s not like people are choosing their hotel based on the toothpaste they supply in your room…right?
Actually, in Japan I wouldn’t be that surprised if there an underground toothpaste otaku culture… (An otaku is somebody who is overly obsessed with some hobby. Basically, the closest equivalent to “nerd” in Japanese.)
These misconceptions made me afraid to go to the dentist in Japan for the first 3 years or so of living here
So, let me paint the picture here. The grounds, if you will, for an interesting story about dentistry.
Interesting stories about dentistry can exist. Surely!
I had heard generally bad things about Japanese dentistry, so I avoided it for the first few years when I was living in Japan. I moved here when I was 19, so I was still in that “It’s okay if my mom does some mundane things for me sometimes phase.” Until I was around 23 I would take an afternoon out of my trip back home to the US for a routine dental checkup. This worked out, but added stress from trying to fit as many things as possible into my trip would mount up over time, and eventually I felt like I just outgrew this. There was something a little awkward about being a 23 year old grown man and still going in with my mom to the same dentist I have been visiting since I was a baby. So, I decided to branch out. I’m paying for this monthly universal health care and Japan, and up until that point I had only used it once…maybe twice?
So I took the plunge. I heard all of the horror stories about Japanese dental care. “They don’t even use fluoride!”, “If they see a problem with your tooth, they just pull them out!” etc. A lot of this was told to me by my American dentist. Definitely no ulterior motive there at all… (lol) No, in reality he’s a really great guy, and I can’t blame him for having that impression. It’s all over the internet and common media in general. Why? Well, the reality is that a lot of those stereotypes stem from previous generations. Many older people in Japan don’t have great teeth, but most people in Japan under the age of 40 or so do. Anyways, I was going to find out for myself, because I started going to the dentist in Japan back in 2018.
The big question: Are Dentists in Japan good?
The 3 dental clinics I went to had state of the art equipment, clean facilities, and some of the nicest staff. If you’re worried about visiting the dentist in Japan, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. That being said, There are a few differences I noticed when comparing the experience of visiting the dentist in Japan to what I had been used to in the US.
What going to the dentist for a checkup is like in Japan; A few things that surprised me.
I remember I sat down for my check out. The dentist came out, a very nice guy. We had a few minutes of small talk, and then he poked around for a few minutes. He came back and did a very basic cleaning, and…that was it. He told me to schedule a time to come back in the next few weeks to finish the rest of the cleaning. I would come to learn that this is a pretty common practice at dentists all across Japan.
I think it may be because of the national insurance system in Japan?…but cleaning tend to be drawn out over a series of 2 or 3 different appointments. Since I lived right next to the office, I actually vastly preferred this to what I had been used to in the US, since I could just hop in for 30 minutes and finish the cleaning in chunks. Heading in for a few minutes is a lot less daunting than sitting in that chair for an hour at a time, after all. I could just make it a small part of my routine. That being said, if you live far away from any dental office, I could see this being incredibly annoying. I suppose it just depends on your situation.
I was also pleasantry surprised with how efficient things were when I was in the chair. The few Japanese dentists I have been to were juggling multiple patients at once (likely because of the insurance situation making 30 minute appointments much cheaper for the clinic). As a result, the atmosphere of the dentist offices in Japan is much more a of “stop in for a quick check-in” kind of ordeal, rather than the endless waiting rooms and small talk that I had experienced in the US. Things were fast, clean, and state of the art, and I had a generally great experience.
How much does going to the dentist in Japan cost?
As with most healthcare, visiting the dentist in Japan is very cheap so long as you are on either the national health insurance or “kokuminkenkouhoken” (国民健康保険) or “shakaihoken” from your place of employment , which will cover around 70% of the bill (In Japan this % will likely be around 70% no matter what plan you’re on) . My bills would typically run around ￥1000 ($10) or ￥3000 ($30) for all parts of the procedure.
There is an entire market for “weird Japan” journalism, so you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet, or even from more reputable western news outlets. While crooked teeth in Japan are considered a beauty standard for women, it isn’t as common as the media would have you believe, because most of the people I have ever seen with crooked teeth are in the media. Furthermore, all crooked teeth are not seen as cute or attractive in Japan. Rather, it is the crooked yaeba or “double tooth” that is seen as a sign of youthful attractiveness. So, it’s only these two teeth. Finally, I personally had a really good experience visiting the dentist in Japan, but of course your mileage may vary.
Hey, did you know that it is almost all men in Japan don’t have facial hair?
In fact, I wrote a whole article about it! If you are interested in learning more about modern Japanese beauty standards, why not check out the article below? I went even more in-depth in that one than I did here.