Universal health coverage (UHC) — the idea that everyone, everywhere, should be able to access quality health services — has been steadily climbing the global health agenda and now claims its rightful place at the very top. The Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 interrelated global goals set by the United Nations in 2015, encourage all nations to realize UHC. At this year's U.N. General Assembly, I heard Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization's new director general, call for all countries to make UHC a political priority and reality for their people.

For Japan, the UHC movement officially began in the 1960s, changing the game for domestic human and economic health, and providing a pioneering case study for success. Building on this foundation, Japan has consistently pushed to give UHC a prominent place in the global health agenda, particularly over the past five years.

However, the seeds for UHC in Japan were sown much earlier, the first being the 1922 Health Insurance Law. After World War II Japan was in shambles; death and disability due to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and parasitic diseases were a part of everyday life. The government understood that economic revitalization depended in large part on a major public health effort. Nationwide public health interventions contributed to eliminating those diseases, and collective efforts made by government, together with the private sector, academia and individual citizens, created the foundation for the provision of basic health care to all. With the introduction of social health insurance, Japan achieved UHC in 1961 and completed its metamorphosis from developing country to global economic powerhouse.