Dentist practicing for 20 years, Ayako Zenitani, 45, is a graduate of Fukuoka Dental College who took the time to study cosmetic dentistry and implants in the United States before returning to work in Japan. In 2012, she branched out by opening the Hanzomon dental practice in Tokyo’s Chiyoda district, where 20 to 30 percent of her patients are no longer Japanese.
1. Why did you choose dentistry as a profession? My father is a dentist and when I was young I helped in his clinic. He never pushed me in this direction, but this experience inspired me.
2. What is the best and worst thing about your job? I particularly like to see satisfied patients after successful treatment. Sometimes, however, general tasks can feel a bit routine. That’s all that’s needed, however, for my practice.
3. What prompted you to study in the United States? After graduating, I had a few foreign patients and realized that I didn’t know how to deal with their specific needs. I also wanted to develop more skills and learn about new technologies that were not available in Japan at that time.
4. Is dentistry in the United States very different from that in Japan? In Japan, I generally find that patients tend to rely on me to explain their needs, whereas in the United States, patients have a clear idea of what they would like and they articulate it clearly.
5. For some people, going to the dentist is nerve-wracking. How much has dentistry changed today to make a visit less traumatic? Dental care is now much less painful in general. For example, we use electronic injections and a very fine needle. The anesthetic is also somewhat warm, close to body temperature. New technology helps too. High resolution images and photographs can help a patient see and understand their dental condition.
6. Do you ever get nervous when you have dental work? No, I never feel nervous. And as a dentist, I can also express my own opinion on this.
7. Can you give us some key phrases in Japanese that could help a patient see a dentist in Japan? “Akete kudasai” (please open [your mouth]), “tojite kudasai” (please close [your mouth]) and “kande kudasai” (please bite [down]) are important. Other useful ones include: “raku ni shit kudasai” (please relax) and “ugai shit kudasai” (please gargle/rinse).
8. What do your patients listen to during their treatment? I sometimes play music they request. It’s typically classical or jazz, sometimes even rock.
9. Unlike some countries, dental treatment in Japan often involves multiple payments. Why is that? There are various reasons, but for patients, a benefit is that they can stop or pause treatment at any time.
10. During the COVID-19 state of emergency in Japan, what happened in your clinic? Dental clinics were not required to close during the state of emergency. But we only took urgent cases and my clinic was only open half the week. During that time, my staff and I attended webinars and read articles. I also kept in touch with former classmates, who are all over the world.
11. What type of additional safety precautions are you currently taking? We are still using N95 masks, face shields and surgical gowns. We also check temperatures and ask our patients to wash their hands well and gargle.
12. Will the pandemic change the way dentists provide treatment in the future? I think, at the very least, the biggest change will be more online consultations. The treatment itself can’t really change much in my opinion.
13. What do you think of home trends like coconut oil, activated charcoal toothpaste and ionic toothbrushes? Although there is no evidence to show that these are particularly effective, I see no harm in it. However, coconut oil seems to be the best. One of my patients saw some improvement after doing it.
14. Aside from the usual use of dental floss, toothbrushing and mouthwash, can you give any tips for improving oral care? The best advice I can give is to brush your tongue every day. It reduces the buildup of bacteria on the tongue. There are also special brushes to do this.
15. Why are people willing to pay so much for Invisalign compared to regular braces? The system is convenient for patients as they can brush and floss as usual. It’s also very easy to remove and clean, so it’s suitable for people who prefer not to be seen with braces in important meetings.
16. If you could work on the teeth of anyone in the world, famous, dead or alive, who would you choose? Madonna would be an honor to deal with!
17. What exactly happens in the mouth during a teeth cleaning process? First, we use an ultrasonic scaler to remove tartar. Then there’s powder blast cleaning to remove stains. For the final polishing, we brush with two or three polishing pastes with different particles.
18. Do all dentists have perfect teeth? You would think so! But, in fact, I don’t believe so.
19. At home, do you use an electric or regular toothbrush? In fact, I use both. I use a regular brush for the contour of the gums, which is a sensitive area, and an electric ultrasonic for the enamel area.
20. What do you think about the idea that slightly crooked teeth can actually be charming? Personally, I don’t think it has any particular aesthetic value. But if the patient has a good bite, good gums and strong teeth without any cavities, then everything is fine. Visually, it should be their personal preference.
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dentists, Ayako Zenitani