Never too late to reinvent yourself
Published in the Wall Street Journal, this moving portrait of a remarkable man is lesson for lawyers too.
Shigeaki Hinohara Transitioned to a New Career in His 90s
Japanese doctor treated victims of American firebombing of Tokyo in World War II
By Koji Everard and Peter Landers
July 28, 2017
He said age was no barrier to self-reinvention—and proved it in his own life by transforming himself in his 90s into a best-selling author and sage.
When Shigeaki Hinohara died July 18 at age 105, his obituary ran on front pages across Japan, a measure of how the former director of St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo had made an impact in one of the world’s fastest-aging societies, where 14% of the population is 75 or older.
Dr. Hinohara was born Oct. 4, 1911, in western Japan, the son of a prominent Methodist preacher and educator who studied in the U.S.—an unusual experience at that time. Like his father, Dr. Hinohara went to America, spending a year at Emory University as one of the first Japanese to study abroad after World War II. What he learned there inspired him to introduce Japan’s first comprehensive annual medical examination system at St. Luke’s in 1954.
Dr. Hinohara had a personal part in some of the 20th century Japan’s most dramatic events. As a young doctor, he treated victims of the American firebombing of Tokyo in World War II. Traveling to a medical conference in 1970, he was on a plane that was hijacked by terrorists who later sought asylum in North Korea. He was freed, and said later that he told himself, “From now on, I will devote this second life that I have been given to something other than myself.”
When members of a doomsday cult released nerve gas on the Tokyo subways in 1995, one of the worst-hit stations was right near Dr. Hinohara’s hospital. As survivors flooded into St. Luke’s by the hundreds, Dr. Hinohara took charge, clearing out a chapel to handle the overflow.
Until the turn of the century, Dr. Hinohara was known mainly in the medical profession. Then, at age 90, he published “How to Live Well,” a collection of commentaries on life with his gentle visage on the cover, wearing a doctor’s coat and holding a stethoscope. The book said people over 75 shouldn’t be shunted to society’s margins, and he exhorted his fellow elderly citizens to consider themselves “on the job” of living even if they were retired from paid work.
“Animals can’t change how they crawl or run, but humans can change how they live. This is because humans alone know from the beginning that life has an ending,” wrote Dr. Hinohara, “Genius without limit sleeps within everyone and awaits its moment of flowering.”
In a country where many companies still force their employees to retire at 60, the message resonated widely. Even after passing 100, Dr. Hinohara was flying around the country giving speeches and writing a regular column in the Asahi newspaper.
He said the elderly shouldn’t worry too much about their diet—he himself was accustomed to making a lunch out of milk and cookies—and told the story of an artist who stopped painting after being warned to lay off sweets because of high blood sugar. Dr. Hinohara relaxed the restrictions, and the artist lived until 105.
“Especially when [doctors] are young, they give strict guidance to patients according to what the textbooks say. But when you tell elderly people, ‘Stop this, reduce that,’ and severely restrict their lives, you can practically see their spirit wither away,” he wrote in “How to Live Well.”
His causes were many—hospice care, improved status for nurses and music therapy. His love of music had begun at age 10 when, kept homebound for a year by illness, he took piano lessons from the wife of a foreign missionary.
“He was active his entire life. In an aging society such as Japan, I think many looked up to Dr. Hinohara as a model to be emulated and a symbol of hope,” said Misako Konno, an actress who appeared with him in a documentary about nursing care.
In late May, less than two months before his death from respiratory failure, he dictated his final column, expressing thanks to his readers, the Asahi said.
“When you die, you lose all your status and honors. Even the financial assets you leave behind merely sow the seeds of discord,” he wrote in “How to Live Well.” “But the single phrase ‘Thank you’ can save the souls of those who are left. It is the greatest legacy.”