—— When did you know you wanted to become a doctor?
It was very late. I was just living my life, not doing anything special. I didn't want anybody telling me what to do or trying to control my life. As a third generation Korean-Japanese, I was the first of four brothers. I was born in Kobe. My father inherited the family rubber business and compared with many others then we were well off. When I was in Jr. High School, however, the business went bankrupt. After that, our family's economic situation changed completely. When I entered high school I didn't have any goals, and everyday I'd go off and read the literary works of Kobo Abe and the like. Sometimes I'd read 2 or 3 books in one day! I was putting all my time into reading books, but paying no attention to my studies. That was the time of the left-wing campus protests at Tokyo University. Things were very uncertain then, and I was greatly affected by those circumstances and lost my direction...and finally dropped-out of high school. I was a day-worker in Kamagasaki in Osaka and Sanya in Tokyo, working here and there and then going off to Yoron Island with my guitar whenever I could. That wasn't all bad because it gave me an appreciation for another way of life. I was touched by the kindness and helpfulness of those less fortunate working so hard in the lower rungs of society.
By chance I was working on the campus of Waseda University and ran into my "senpai" there. When he saw me he was surprised and he exclaimed, "This isn't right!" That incident helped me to think clearly again...so I went back to high school and I finally finished in 5 years. Even after I finished high school, though, I still didn't have a purpose in my life... I didn't want to go to University, so I was a delivery driver and drove a microbus tending to foreign people. While I was doing that, for some reason, the suffering and worrying I felt in my life just kept growing...to find some escape from that feeling I was reading clinical psychology books everyday. Soon I started to get the idea of not only helping myself but helping others as well...and I started to think about becoming a psychologist. That's when I realized that I wanted to become a doctor, when I was almost 24.
—— So 6 years after you graduated from high school you cleared the most difficult barrier to medical school...the entrance examination?
Four year after I graduated from high school, I left Tokyo and went back to my home in Kobe. At first, I was working at a vocational training school, making some money and studying bookkeeping. When I finished doing that I took a part-time job delivering chicken, all the while I was studying and planning for my medical school entrance exams. It took me a year and a half to prepare, apply and be accepted before I finally entered Okayama Medical School. I didn't prepare like most people...I had a different way. First of all I went to the medical school and got the textbooks, then I tried to sleep less to give myself more time to study. When I learned I passed the exam I was so happy.
—— How did you come to the United States?
Originally my dream was to do something in this world. Then I had the feeling I wanted to be a doctor who could help people from all over the world. To make my dream come true I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to go to the United States to get my clinical training. By the time I finished my general education classes at school, my goal wasn't to be a psychiatrist anymore, I was more interested in becoming a medical doctor who treats a wide variety of diseases. I was also interested in clinical training, so in order to prepare, I wanted to take biology classes at a US university. That's why I took a 2-year leave of absence from medical school. But things didn't go like I planned. For some reason there was a problem with my TOEFL documents and I couldn't attend the college I intended to go to. So I had no choice but to go to an adult school, which accepted me immediately, and then I started studying to become a certified shiatsu specialist, thinking it would help to pay my expenses. But inside of a year I ended up going back to Japan. After that I went to Europe for several months. After 2-years, I went back to Okayama and re-enrolled in medical school. After I was back in school, I got married to a Czechoslovakian women I had met while I was in Europe. So all told, it took me 8 years to graduate from medical school.
Upon graduating I was an intern at the USNH Yokosuka. Then after my rotation training Uji- Tokushukai Hospital, I went to The National Medical Clinic of Hiroo in Tokyo, to be a family doctor for 3 years. During that time, I was treating mostly American patients. Since it was unusual for a Japanese doctor to speak English, patients really appreciated my services, and that's when I realized how valuable those skills were....
I have always tried to put myself in a situation where I am challenged, so the dreams I had before of getting my clinical training was something I still wanted to do. That's why I came to the United States again. Before I started again though, I had a little bit of free time to study at the Graduate School of Public Health at Columbia University. Then after one semester something terrible happened...the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake. So I went back to Kobe since my home was there. I was worried and frustrated, so I took another leave of absence from my studies and stayed in Japan for a little while. During that time, I got an interview notice from a hospital in Connecticut, and so I hurried back to the United States. Finally, in June of 1995, I started my combined training of internal medicine and pediatrics at Program Bridgeport of Yale University. It took four years to finish, just as I planned. At that time, there were not so many specialty programs to choose from and the combined program wasn't so common ,but I passed both I passed both the internal medicine and pediatrics exams.
—— What drove you to make the sacrifices you did to become a doctor?
Doctors in Japan make a good living, but to be a part of the United States medical system, even in some small way, was something I very much wanted to do. The strong point of the Japanese medical system is the national health insurance system, which covers everyone. There are also many excellent doctors, but when compared to the US the quality of treatment varies greatly from place to place. For example, the same disease will be treated differently at a big hospital and a local clinic. Plus doctors there have developed a penchant for using their own style of treatment, instead of using standard treatments. On this point, graduates of United States medical schools learn methods of treatment that are more standardized. There is a basic manual advising medical practitioners of how to treat certain diseases and it explains the way certain things are to be done. In the US the general level and moral of doctors is high. That system is how the US maintains a constant and uniform level of treatment. Because of that system, no matter which hospital you go to, or which doctor you see, you can get the same high quality of treatment.
In Japan doctors are so busy they don't have extra time to listen to patients (same as in the United States recently) and communicate with them. Even though patients have the same ailments, the cause, symptoms and the extent of suffering vary from patient to patient. So listening to your patients should be part of the treatment. This is where Japanese people living abroad are at a disadvantage...it's very difficult for them to understand and communicate medical terms in English and even more difficult to explain their symptoms to a doctor! So it occurred to me that even though I was living here, I never really worked with any Japanese patients and I felt that should change. Since Japanese is my native language, I can use it to communicate slight nuances and as a doctor this is a valuable skill to provide to Japanese patients.
With this idea in mind, after having completed my clinical training in the US, I started to look for a hospital to work for. That's when I heard that Dr. Hideo Chow, CEO of the Nippon Clinic Group, had a plan to open a clinic within Scripps Clinic for Japanese patients. Later, I received a formal offer from Scripps Clinic. Besides doing internal medicine and pediatrics, I also had about two and a half years experience with emergency medical treatment, general, surgical, obstetrics, plastic surgery, dermatology and brain surgery etc. during my rotations in Japan. It was also a good opportunity for me to be a primary care physician, that's why I moved to San Diego.
—— So as a doctor, what are you proudest of?
One of the people I have great respect for is Mr. Kosei Takahashi who was a former lecturer of physiotherapy for internal medicine at the University of Tokyo. Science was using statistics and he brought this idea to the medical world, along with his pioneering spirit. Because I met him, I felt like I wanted to spend my life pursuing the use of epidemiology and statistics to do research. To be faithful to what you believe in and to never give up I learned from him. When I was attending Okayama University Medical School and during my rotation training at Uji-Tokushukai it was a really tough time in my life...I was too busy to even eat or sleep sometimes, but I persisted because of my will and never-say-die-spirit I developed from my long struggle. So I am proudest of my accomplishment in passing the medical board exams, for internal medicine and pediatrics in the United States, and for clinical training in the US, for which you must pass an extremely difficult national exam. Also, before that, when the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare was looking for people to be trained as family doctors in the United States, only two people out of 100 managed to pass the exam. All of these things gave me more confidence in myself.
So now I don't want to only be a doctor that can speak Japanese, I want to be a top-notch doctor who helps people with a human touch. I always think about that
—— It's kind of late for me to say this but congratulations on your becoming the fourth director of the Nippon Clinic.
Thank you very much. Helping people in San Diego is my pleasure, but that's not my only goal. As doctor, I still have so much to learn and study, and as a matter of fact I'm currently studying the treatment of epidemics at the SDSU graduate school. I'd like to be able to integrate the US style of post-graduate medical education into Japan's medical system to help improve it. In this way, I can serve as a bridge between the US and Japanese systems, by cooperating with doctors in Japan and by providing training at our clinic. Now other Nippon Clinics want to do the same thing and Dr. Chow is the main person responsible for this at the Nippon Clinic Group and is hoping to move this idea forward. At the same time, I want to make our services more convenient for our Japanese patients and establish Nippon Clinic as a place known for excellent doctors and treatment. Getting sick in a foreign country worries people, so at least we can eliminate language as one of the things they have to worry about. When patients have less stress they may get better more quickly and that would give me a great feeling of accomplishment.