Small-town doctor has big impact
March 15, 1999 The Nikkei Weekly
TETSURO IROHIRA HELPS FOREIGN LABORERS, SENIOR CITIZENS
by EIJI HOTOPP FURUKAWA Staff writer
Doctoring is a prestigious profession in Japan.
But Tetsuro Irohira chose to forgo the fancy perks that come with
practicing medicine in the city, instead opting to work in an out-of-the-way
mountain community in Nagano Prefecture in central Japan, the site of last
year's winter Olympic Games.
He treats elderly Japanese and helps foreign laborers in the area
through voluntary activities.
Irohira said practicing medicine in such a remote area helps him understand
the health-care situation in developing countries.
He said he hepes to spread the benefits of primary health care throughout
the Asian region, starting with a Japanese village.
Q: Why did you choose to work in a remote area?
A: The experience of roaming and meeting many people set my basic dirction.
After quiting unversity at the age of 21, I traveled around Asia and other
parts of the world and sometimes worked alongside the homeless.
That awakened me to the realities of society and left me with an urge to work
I then thought of becoming a doctor and went back to school.
When I was a medical student, I met a Bangladeshi medical student named
Sumana Barua at a health school on Leyte Island in the Philippines.
He had studied in Japan but went to the Philippines after realizing that
Japanese medical care, which makes full use of technology,
did not fit the infrastructure in his home country.
He shaped the image of the doctor I wanted to become -
somebody providing medical care to a community.
With his encouragement, I started working at Saku General Hospital
in Nagano Prefecture in 1990, which has provided medical care to
rural communities for 50 years.
Last year I moved to the village of Minami Aiki,
in the same prefecture, where there was no doctor.
Q: How did you come to help foreign laborers in Japan?
A: When I first moved to Nagano, the prefecture was booming
in preparation for the Olympic Games.
Many foreign workers, maily from Asia, came to find construction jobs,
or nightclub work if they were women.
I and some friends organized a group called International Solidarity of
Saku Area Citizens (ISSAC) to protect foreign laborer's human rights
regarding medical care and working conditions.
We have dealt with issues ranging from injuries at construction sites
and the slave trade in Thai women to problems of wage defaults for
ISSAC also promotes medical examination and treatment
for AIDS sufferers in cooperation with the local public-health office.
Over several years, our group found 88 HIV carriers and AIDS-infected
One Thai patients of mine wished to see a Buddhist monk in her last moments.
I learned that Buddhist monks are an emotional mainstay for Thais,
and that terminal care in Thailand is often provided by them.
I once invited monks from Thailand to visit Nagano to serve the Thai
Q: How do you encourage the spread of primary health care
in Asian developing countries?
A: The elderly patients I treat in Minami Aiki often talk about
community life in the old days.
Their stories remind me of what I saw during my travels through
Asian villages and how I was inspired to provide medical care.
It is useful to understand the history and current situation of
Japanese farming villages if you want to provide medical care
in developing countries.
Many Japanese medical students now visit me in Minami Aiki to
learn about community health care.
I also invite Japanese and foreign doctors and specialists
to the village.
By experiencing the life and people in the village and interacting
and exchanging views, I hope those young people will be the seeds
for primary health care in the region.
A series of interviews of Japanese involved in the Asian Region
NAME: Tetsuro Irohira
POSITION: Director of Minami Aiki Village Clinic in Nagano Prefecture
EDUCATION: Graduated from Kyoto University Faculty of Medicine
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Worked at Saku General Hospital in Nagano Prefecture;
organized International Solidarity of Saku Area Citizens (ISSAC)
to support foreign workers;
honored by Thai Foreign Ministry for helping Thai nationals in Japan
FAMILY: Married; two sons, a daughter