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Ex-teacher from US makes 21-language site helping foreigners in Japan find vaccines

LaShawn Toyoda, founder of Find a Doc, a foreign-language vaccine information website, is seen in this image provided by LaShawn Toyoda.

TOKYO -- A website providing coronavirus vaccination information in 21 languages has received 70,000 visits since its launch three months ago. With the vaccination system complicated enough to confuse even Japanese people, the multilingual website is designed to help foreign residents who are at an even greater disadvantage because they do not speak the language.

    Among Find a Doc's 21 available languages are English, French, Mongolian and Indonesian. Its database displays medical institutions accepting individual vaccinations to people who wish to be inoculated, or where appointments have been canceled.

    Users can enter their municipality's name to check the name and location of local medical facilities, their websites, whether they require vaccination coupons issued by the local government, and whether vaccinations are limited to municipality residents. Currently, about 150 hospitals and clinics across Japan are listed.

    The website is run by LaShawn Toyoda. When information is received from site users, she approves the listing after checking it herself. If the medical institution is no longer accepting appointments, she deletes it from the list.

    This screenshot from the Find a Doc website displays a list of medical institutions.

    Originally from Maryland in the U.S., Toyoda moved from Shanghai in 2011 to teach English in Japan. She has taught at elementary and junior high schools and at universities.

    But in March 2020 she left her job at a university in Tokyo because she was uneasy about continuing face-to-face classes during the coronavirus pandemic. Her first concern was for her then 6-month-old daughter. At the time, she worried that if she got infected, she wouldn't be able to take care of her daughter and that she might get infected, too.

    But finding new work proved difficult. When Toyoda wrote on Twitter that she had left her job, a friend who is the chief technology officer of a programming school recommended she take an online course. The course started in August 2020, and she spent her weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the computer. It was a difficult time, but with the encouragement of her family and classmates, she graduated in January 2021, and has been working as a programmer for an IT company since March.

    When Toyoda started her new job, COVID-19 vaccinations were gradually becoming available in Japan. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare's website had a function to translate its text into English, Chinese, and Korean, but even Toyoda, who has lived in Japan over 10 years, is married to a Japanese man and can speak Japanese, found it difficult to understand the terminology related to administrative bodies and medical care.

    This photo shows Saori Viana, who introduced Find a Doc to her Brazilian mother-in-law, in this image provided by Saori Viana.

    She said that even though she speaks English and Japanese, getting information from public institutions is daunting, and that foreigners whose mother tongue is not a major language may not have many people they can easily turn to. She pointed to information on where to register for the cancellation waiting list and how to get vaccinated outside of people's areas of residence as particularly complicated.

    Toyoda spent her nights and weekends collecting and translating data on medical institutions and other information with the goal of creating a platform where foreigners living in Japan can find medical institutions that have cancellation waiting lists for vaccination applicants. People she knew also helped. She said she worked under the assumption that young people who didn't know when they'd get their vaccination vouchers would want to take any slots that opened up from cancellations.

    Much of the local governments' vaccine-related information was initially all about older people, while everything else was posted on individual medical institutions' websites. To create the waiting list, Toyoda said she had to explore medical institutions' websites one by one, and that she realized the need to create a system directly linking users and medical facilities so that when appointments become available, people who want to get vaccinated can immediately go and get the shot.

    More than 5,000 people visited the site in its first 24 hours after launch, with the number of accesses reaching more than 70,000 by early September. Most users are people in their 20s and 30s. Although English, Portuguese, and Vietnamese are the most commonly searched foreign languages, Japanese actually accounts for more than half of the searches, a fact Toyoda says proves everyone -- not just foreigners -- are anxious about the state of vaccinations.

    Saori Viana, a company employee living in Tokyo, used Find a Doc to get her 55-year-old Brazilian mother-in-law vaccinated.

    Viana's mother-in-law lives in the city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, and speaks conversational Japanese, but cannot fully understand the language. During the medical interview for vaccination at her workplace, the doctor told her she could not be vaccinated. Because she didn't understand the specific reason, she waited for the local government to send her a vaccination coupon.

    But the vaccination coupon she received was only in Japanese. Although the city has a call center that responds in 12 languages, the Portuguese-speaking interpreter was unavailable when she called, so she could not make any inquiries.

    Viana introduced her mother-in-law to Find a Doc after she turned to her for help. It turned out a medical institution in Nagoya was accepting waiting list registrations. She was able to get vaccinated earlier than on the schedule set by the city of Toyota.

    "Medical terminology isn't something we use in our daily lives, so it is quite difficult to understand in a language one is unaccustomed to. I felt that the difficulty for foreigners to access medical care (in Japan) became even more apparent through the coronavirus pandemic," Viana said.

    Currently, Find a Doc is run by more than 60 volunteers. Donations are its only income source, but Toyoda is determined to keep it free and aims to make it a non-profit organization in the future. She praised Japan's medical system as excellent by global standards and said she wants to help people get medical treatment in hospitals when necessary, even if they don't understand the language.

    Find a Doc is available at

    (Japanese original by Yukako Ono, Digital News Department)

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