A practicing dentist of 20 years, Ayako Zenitani, 45, is a Fukuoka Dental College graduate who took time out to study esthetic dentistry and implants in the United States before returning to work in Japan. In 2012, she branched out on her own, opening Hanzomon Dental Office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, where 20 to 30 percent of her patients are now non-Japanese.

1. Why did you choose dentistry as a profession? My father is a dentist and, when I was young, I used to help out in his clinic. He never pushed me in that direction, but that experience inspired me.

2. What’s the best and worst thing about your work? I especially enjoy seeing satisfied patients after successful treatment. Sometimes, though, the general duties can feel a little routine. It’s all necessary, though, for my practice.

3. What inspired you to study in the U.S.? After I graduated, I had a few foreign patients and I realized that I didn’t know how to treat their specific needs. I also wanted to develop more skills and learn about new technology that was unavailable in Japan at that time.

4. Is dentistry in the U.S. very different to in Japan? In Japan, I generally find the patients tend to rely on me to explain their needs, whereas in the U.S. the patients have a clear idea of what they would like and they express that clearly.

A winning smile: Dentist Ayako Zenitani has a tip for readers: brush your tongue. | COURTESY OF AYAKO ZENITANI
A winning smile: Dentist Ayako Zenitani has a tip for readers: brush your tongue. | COURTESY OF AYAKO ZENITANI

5. For some people, going to the dentist is nerve-wracking. How much has dentistry changed today to make a visit less traumatic? Dental treatment today is much less painful in general. For example, we use electronic injections and a very thin needle. The anesthetic is also a little warm, close to body temperature. New technology helps, too. High-resolution imagery and photographs can help a patient see and understand their dental condition.

6. Do you ever get nervous when you have dental treatment? No, I never feel nervous. And as a dentist, I also get to voice my own opinion about it.

7. Can you give us a few Japanese key phrases that could help a patient visiting 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 shite kudasai” (please relax) and “ugai shite kudasai” (please gargle/rinse).

8. What do your patients listen to while having treatment? I sometimes play music that they request. It’s typically classical or jazz, occasionally even rock.

9. Unlike some countries, Japan’s dental treatments often involve several installments. Why is that? There are various reasons, but for patients, one advantage is that they can stop or pause the treatment at anytime they want.

10. During Japan’s COVID-19 state of emergency, what happened at your clinic? Dental clinics were not required to close during the state of emergency. But we only took urgent cases and my clinic was open only half the week. During that time, my staff and I took online seminars and read articles. I also kept in touch with old classmates, who are all over the world.

11. What kind of extra safety precautions are you taking now? We always use N95 masks, face shields and surgical gowns. We are also checking temperatures and asking our patients to thoroughly wash their hands and gargle.

12. Will the pandemic change the way dentists offer treatment in the future? I think, at the very least, the biggest change will be more online consultations. Treatment itself can’t really change very much in my opinion.

13. What do you think of home trends like coconut oil pulling, activated charcoal toothpaste and ion toothbrushes? Although there is no evidence to show these are particularly effective, I don’t see any harm in them. Coconut oil pulling seems to be the best, though. One of my patients saw some improvement after doing it.

14. Aside from the usual flossing, brushing and mouthwash, can you give any tips on better oral care? The best tip that I can give is brushing the tongue every day. It reduces bacterial buildup on the tongue. There’s special brushes to do it, too.

15. Why are people willing to pay so much extra for Invisalign over ordinary braces? The system is convenient for patients, because they can brush and floss teeth as normal. It’s also very easy to remove and clean, so it’s good for people who prefer not to be seen with braces at 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 treat!

17. What exactly is going on in the mouth during a teeth cleaning process? First, we use an ultrasonic scaler to remove tartar. Then there is powder jet-cleaning to remove stains. For the final polishing, we brush with two or three different particle polishing pastes.

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 toothbrush or an ordinary one? Actually, I use both. I use an ordinary brush for around the gums, which is a sensitive area, and an ultrasonic electric one for the enamel area.

20. What do you think of the idea that slightly crooked teeth can actually be charming? Personally, I don’t think it has particular aesthetic value. But if the patient has a good bite, good gum condition and strong teeth without any decay — then it’s absolutely fine. Visually, it should be their personal preference.

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