Monday, November 26, 2007

Autumn leaves and climate change.

Autumn... trees are starting to change color, like a rendering of warm colors on a canvas. Temperatures have gone down, and I notice it's almost the end of November. Time flies.

Last Monday, I paid a visit to Kita-no-maru Park near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Spent maybe about an hour or two sitting on the bench, gazing at the picturesque scenery adorned with beautifully colored trees, while some little nursery children played with parents and other people sat on the lawn reading books or just taking a nap. Calm, quiet, and peaceful. Birds flew from a tree to another from time to time.

An oasis in bustling central Tokyo.

When you talk of autumn leaves in Japan, Kyoto is the first place that comes to mind. The former capital of Japan is just purely beautiful during this season. The scenery of numerous history-rich artistic temples with a balanced mix of red, orange, yellow, green, and sometimes pink and purple leaves is just simply magnificent.

However, peculiar things are starting to happen in Kyoto. The autumn period is becoming shorter and shorter year after year. Compared to half a century ago, leaves now start to change color two weeks late, and leaves fall off the trees a week late, shortening the "autumn leaves season". Why? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess... the temperatures at Kyoto have risen, widely thought to be the result of global warming. According to records, the average temperature of Kyoto is three to four degrees (Celsius) higher today than in the Meiji period, about a century ago.

Kyoto is where the international community agreed on a protocol to reduce greenhouse gases, and the host country promised to cut 6% by 2012 from the 1990 level. However, the reality is emission has increased by more than 8%. Experts note that the Japanese industries had already gone through a series of rigorous cost cutting measures in the 1980s through developing new technologies, thus cutting carbon emissions, so much of the current plans focus on taking advantage of the Kyoto Mechanism, such as emissions trading (ET) and joint implementation (JI), and also promoting and persuading offices and homes to save more energy.

We, as individuals, need to act now. For our future, not only to help our environment but also in order not to lose trust from the rest of the world. There are lots we can get done if we all do it. :-)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A visit to Ukima Clinic.

When I contacted Dr. Fujinuma to ask whether I could see Ukima Clinic, a community-based clinic operated by the Tokyo Hokuto Health Co-operative, he happily nodded. So, on November 6th, I had the chance to visit the clinic I had been wanting to visit since spring.

I invited three friends who also participated in the Exploring Health Care program this March at Stanford University and University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and now belonging to a clinical skills practice group called DOCS (acronym for Development of Clinical Skills), which we formed after knowing how much clinical experience the medical students on the other side of the 'big pond' are exposed to.

So that morning, the day there started out in the outpatient clinic. Of course, it was our first ever time shadowing a doctor, so there was so much to learn, both in terms of knowledge and the way the doctor interacts with the patient. However, what I felt here most strongly is that health care is truly patient-oriented, in other words, even if patient A and patient B have the same health issues, the medical treatment or the approach taken by the physician may not necessarily be identical.

For example, there's not much hope in persuading an alcoholic or a heavy smoker to quit or reduce the amount if he insists he earns money to drink or smoke, respectively, and if that is the ultimate joy for his life. However, a different approach may be taken towards a person who is more willing to care more for his own health. A woman who smokes five cigarettes a day to refresh herself during break at her work says she is aware that it's not good and she's thinking of cutting the amount, but just couldn't make the move. So, then the physician would actually show her some other ways of refreshing, for example drinking tea or coffee or having a light snack, and chatting with her fellow workers. Naturally, there are exceptions, but in general, the doctor does what makes the patient most happy.

In the afternoon, we participated in what is called an 'Oushin', which is a house call where a doctor goes and sees the patient at his or her home. This is a very interesting form of health care, since you really have the chance to see the environment the patient is in, including the lifestyle and the socio-economic background. There are households with various status, from seriously poor ones to rather wealthy ones. In this afternoon we visited seven.

There was a family where the only person in the house was a 90-year-old lady lying all day in the bed, having only one grandson living with her to look after her when he doesn't have work. Other members of the once big family have either died or are literally 'missing'. The house looked as if it's going to crumble with a couple more earthquakes (yes, common in Japan), and the physician, now used to visiting this home, told us the places in the room where the floor had become too weak to support us. There was also a relatively wealthy-looking family, living in a mansion. Nicely dressed ladies (apparently sisters) had gathered to look after their mother who had become ill. This was a first-time visit for this patient, so the doctor goes through the explaining and all the communication with the patient's family thoroughly and carefully with detail. After the visit, she added that it's essential to build a favorable first impression, since that leads to trust and will ultimately have a substantial effect on the future relationship with the family.

So the day ended roughly eight hours after we arrived at the clinic in the morning, though the physicians still had some paperwork left including reviewing the patients' medical records. It was a day where I had the chance to truly understand that there actually are various kinds of people with various backgrounds. I mean, I knew that by words, but this experience enabled me to put those words in my own context. It is often said that the socio-economic disparities have widened in Japan, but still not to the extent of those seen in the U.S., Europe, or developing nations, however, disparities do exist and those are not minute. It is all the more important to understand the true needs of the patient, considering the background and the environment of the patient, and think about what happiness means for each of the patients, and tailor health care to help them become happier.

At the end, Dr. Fujinuma summarized the day by giving us a small lecture about what primary health care (PHC) is, and what strategies the clinic is taking to make the community more happy as a whole. Through this talk, three key words got connected in one straight line in my mind: primary health care (PHC), public health, and community building and empowerment. There's a whole another story to this, so I'll stop here for now. :-)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Reshuffling the political industry.

When the leader of the main opposition party in Japan said he would resign, I first thought it was the beginning of a much-needed radical reshuffling of the "political industry" in Japan, contrary to what many critics and most media are saying.

He cited a couple of reasons for his decision to step down, but some notable points are him admitting that the Democratic Party (DPJ) still does not have enough strength to run a government, followed by presenting an idea of entering into positive talks with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) about lawmaking, even hinting the possibility of a team-up. While DPJ's victory in the upper house (House of Councillors) elections that took place this summer represented a significant boost for the young party, effectively blocking the LDP from passing laws, ironically, the same could be said the other way around, as the LDP still controls the majority of seats in the lower house (House of Representatives), thus creating a political stalemate. Of course, the law says the lower house can pass laws even if the upper house vetoes it, but the LDP will not dare to do that, knowing how much criticism they would be receiving immediately afterwards.

In Japan, many speak of the advance the DPJ has made as the dawn of an era of a two-party system in Japan. However, if you look at the DPJ, it's just a cluster of former smaller opposition parties that joined together just because they weren't big enough to beat the dominant LDP in elections. So still, if you look at the members, some really have different views and ideas. Mr. Ozawa probably had this reality in mind that they at least aren't ready now to run a country. But then again, a similar comment could also be said with the LDP, since they are made up of nine factions that often compete against each other, though an increasing number of politicians do not belong to any. This said, I personally strongly believe that a radical reshuffling, or a reorganization in politics should be made. The resignation had the potential to spark this.

Many speak of DPJ's leader Ichiro Ozawa as a backroom dealer, but he has clear views and knows what he wants to do and what needs to get done. Politicians who have a clear picture should have their own parties with their own ideas with fellow politicians who share very similar views. However, the reality is, they just continue to cling to the LDP or DPJ, just for the sake of the support (including the financial part) they're eligible to receive when it comes to elections. But, we all have to remember that politics is for the benefit of the citizens and not the politicians themselves. Right?

Had Mr. Ozawa resigned and formed his own party with his colleagues who share similar views with him, independent from both the DPJ and LDP, it could have started a major reshuffling. After all, there are politicians in both parties who are likely to agree with him on a lot of terms. But well, he has somehow gone back to the chair. Now, he must be prepared for all the criticism he will be receiving especially through the media, in a country where the media has so much influence on the people. He might have changed his opportunity to instead be the beginning of an end of his career, at least in politics. But, I had hopes, yes, hopes... :-)

Friday, November 2, 2007

An evening in Shinjuku's good old backstreet.

A block still retaining post-war Showa era style, near bustling Shinjuku Station, houses over 30 "nomiya", or Japanese-style counter bars. It's called Omoide-Yokocho, which translates to something like "the backstreet of the good old days". The small community truly lives up to its name.

On October 28th, after we had the patient assessment workshop, I decided to go for a glass of beer and a light snack in Omoide-Yokocho with two of my friends who also participated in the activity. It's Sunday night, so not all of the nomiyas are open, and if you want to see how it is when it's busiest, Friday night would be best. So we walked down the small but lively alley and hopped into one named Asadachi. Many nomiyas call people walking by to come in, but this place didn't, so we just said why not.

This place had a very interesting, or to some maybe peculiar menu. They had raw pig and cow liver, testicles, penis, and uterus, while also boasting frogs, whale meat, fish, and many kinds of shellfish. Most of these could also be served cooked. A wide choice of rare alcohol was also offered, like "sake" made from aloe, snakes, lizards, etc... but with all of this, the two-hour talk with the owner of this place was so interesting that it made the menu irrelevant.

When he talked, he talked as though if he had met everyone from everywhere. And he closely looked into the other's eye when talking, and continued to look into it even after the other had shifted his eye somewhere else. Very observant he was... he really reads people's expressions. He's met all kinds of people, from TV superstars to politicians and company executives to front-line employees. They all come here to babble about what's up in the world they belong to, and that's why he knows a lot about them... And maybe because he has seen the eyes of so many that, he says he can read one's personality just by looking into the eye.

A 68-year-old actor came in while we were there, and says he has been a regular visitor for over a decade. The owner knows a lot about his life... that he was a playboy when he was young though having a wife, did ordinary desk work in his 40s and 50s at an insurance company, but decided to become an actor after he retired at 65.

The owner told us many things... but the one that seems to have been carved in my mind is "What's most important is your heart, but just that won't get you anywhere... you have to be clever, maybe sometimes even cunning or sly..." Hmm, maybe so. :-)