Photo/IllutrationSatoshi Nagasaka checks the teeth of a refugee applicant. (Mari Fujisaki)

  • Photo/Illustraion

While working at a bank and extending loans to customers in Latin America and elsewhere around the globe, Satoshi Nagasaka didn’t feel like he was making a difference in the world.

So, he decided to re-enter college and study dentistry in his 30s.

Today, Nagasaka, 68, is helping foreigners applying for refugee status in Japan, who often cannot have their dental problems treated as they do not qualify for national health insurance.

As the head of a dental team at Tsurumi University in Yokohama, Nagasaka, along with team members, has examined 222 patients from 38 countries and regions and extracted diseased teeth on 198 occasions to date.

Nagasaka said the patients he saw over the past 10 years often had such loose teeth that they could be easily pulled with bare hands, a condition that can rarely be found among his Japanese patients.

“They likely could not afford any dental care in their home counries,” Nagasaka said.

Nagasaka worked as an instructor at a cram school after quitting his bank job and enrolled in Tsurumi University’s department of dentistry when he was 32.

Around 2009, Nagasaka, who was then an assistant professor at the university, was told by a friend working for the United Nations that non-Japanese seeking refugee designation cannot typically afford to see a dentist.

The reason is that refugee applicants are not granted the right to work and are therefore not eligible for the national health insurance program in many cases, whereas designated refugees are allowed to take jobs and are covered by the program.

Nagasaka was astonished at the hardship that refugee applicants face “in this advanced nation of Japan,” but soon roused himself into dealing with the issue “if no one is willing to handle it.”

He spent an entire year developing a system where refugee applicants are put in contact with the university through nonprofit organizations so that their teeth can be treated with the treatment costs covered by the school.

Initially, a dedicated care room was used for the project out of consideration to the concerns that accepting patients suffering from serious dental problems could result in the spread of infectious diseases.

But refugee applicants are currently examined in the same place as other patients.

While those applying for refugee status occasionally visit him without prior reservations or skip their appointments without giving notice, Nagasaka said those acts do not bother him.

“Supporting someone is associated with pleasure, sorrow and sometimes patience,” he said. “The experience gives me lessons in life. People should help each other, and I also sometimes give problems to others and need help from people around me.”