The following article was submitted by the Southern Regional Development Bureau of the Iwate Prefectural Government, and translated by Amanda Wayama. 

What if, on a trip overseas, you found yourself getting sick and needed to go to a hospital? What would you do if you couldn’t communicate your symptoms or describe your illness?

There are many foreign residents who have trouble communicating medical terms in Japanese, or who might not know all the differences between Japan’s healthcare system and their own country, making it a nerve-wracking experience to see the doctor.

It would give people great peace of mind to know there was a bridge available to help communication between the foreign patient and the doctor.

To that end, the Oshu International Exchange Association has developed a Medical Interpreter Volunteer system that sends interpreters out to healthcare facilities to make it easier for foreigners to get care. This initiative is set up so that Japanese and foreign residents with knowledge of the healthcare system and interpretation skills can sign up to become medical interpreter volunteers. If a foreign patient requests an interpreter from a healthcare facility, then they can send them one from their list of volunteers.

This is a model case for such a system within Iwate – a progressive approach taken by the Oshu International Exchange Association, with more and more foreign patients using it every year. This volunteer system started in 2015 and currently has 49 volunteers. There are five languages available: English, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Volunteers are sent to hospitals in Iwate that have signed a Medical Interpreter Volunteer agreement.

A medical interpreter is not just someone who translates the language word-for-word. Doctor-patient discussions need to be straight and direct about highly private matters – even if one feels empathy with the patient, it is necessary to interpret things in a neutral and objective way. You also need better communication skills than average in order to create a relaxing environment and a relationship of trust where a sick patient can speak freely even if they’re not feeling at their best.


The Oshu International Exchange Association holds training sessions in order to develop the skills of their medical interpreter volunteers. There, volunteers study jargon used in medical interpreting, practice better communication skills, and role-play with people playing the part of the doctor and the patient. Those who have no issue interpreting are selected as volunteers for our list.

We received the following message from the Oshu International Association regarding their Medical Interpreter Volunteer system:

“Living abroad, the number one worry is what to do if sick or injured. Even if you head to your local medical facility, there so many procedures to get through – reception, filling out medical questionnaires, getting seen by a doctor, tests, treatment, surgery, and paying the bill. As part of what we do to support foreign residents and their lives here, we think that having our medical interpreter volunteer system in place makes it so that any foreigner can come here and have peace of mind. On the other hand, medical interpreting requires not only interpreting skill, but also logical thinking when translating. We feel it’s a great responsibility to support other people and do something that may affect a life.”

When construction begins on the ILC, researchers and their families from many countries will come to live in Iwate. A lot of support systems need to be developed in a number of fields, including housing, education, labor, and of course, healthcare so that they can live comfortably here.

By increasing the breadth of those initiatives, all involved are working hard so that both foreign residents and Japanese residents in the region will be able to live comfortably and form a community of mutual understanding of each other’s cultures.

Oshu International Exchange Association: