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Humble true tales of a ‘good man’

by David Cozy

The journals of Kenjiro Setoue, a doctor at a clinic on a small Kyushu island, chronicle a life that is, as the doctor himself notes, for the most part, unexciting. It is difficult to believe that a version of this life has been retold — and, one has to believe, embellished — in an ongoing series of manga and also in a popular TV show.

DOCTOR STORIES: From the Island Journals of the Legendary ‘Dr. Koto,’ by Kenjiro Setoue. Translated and with an introduction by Jeffrey S. Irish. Science and Behavior Books, 2012, 216 pp., $14.95 (paperback)

If it’s difficult to grasp how stories based on Setoue’s life could thrive in media that typically favor the sensational, one quickly sees, reading the journals as edited and translated by Jeffrey S. Irish, that, in their original form, these tales from the life of a country doctor make very good reading indeed.

The journals are artless: Setoue, at least in translation, is a competent, but not preternaturally gifted writer; his serviceable prose, however, is just the vehicle for conveying stories from a life given over to simply serving the islanders among whom he lives. The lack of flamboyance in his prose is exactly suited to the lack of flamboyance in his acts. Setoue’s goodness — and one leaves the journals certain that one has been in the presence of a good man — arises neither from sophisticated philosophy, nor from any superhuman moral sense. Rather, it is to be found in the mundane: trying, in this situation and that, to do the right thing.

This is, of course, something that all doctors who honor their profession endeavor to do. Few, however, would choose to serve in a place as remote as Shimokoshikijima.

Setoue, a successful and ambitious surgeon, was no different. He agreed to spend six months at the clinic on the island in the interim between leaving the large urban hospital where he had been working and opening his own clinic. More than 30 years later, he is still there.

He wonders, in the journals, about how this came to pass, and how staying on the island changed his life.

“I could not have foreseen,” Setoue writes, “that in the absence of urban distractions, I would find no other alternative but to live each day in a rather common manner. I would enjoy tasty fish, warm people, and a thriving traditional culture, and as a doctor begin to experience and appreciate the importance of the life of every single individual in the community.”

His concern for these individuals comes across in his portraits of them; it becomes clear that it is the people that have kept him there.

As in the rest of rural Japan, the population of Shimokoshikijima is aging and dying. Setoue’s tone, therefore, particularly in the later journal entries, is often elegiac. He writes, for example, about three “farmers and master craftsmen: Grandpas Noboru, Yoshihide, and Kazue” who, every year after the rice harvest, presented him with rice-straw sandals. In the early ’90s, the stock of sandals he usually had thanks to the Grandpas’ generosity had been depleted.

“That should come as no surprise,” the doctor reflects. “Grandpa Yoshihide has been dead for three years, and Grandpa Noboru for five. Grandpa Kazue … had moved to Osaka to live with his eldest son.”

The doctor remembers visiting Grandpa Yoshihide at home: “The sandals, that sunken hearth’s fire, Grandpa Yoshihide, all like the beautiful sun sinking into the sea west of Koshiki, may be the last rays of light cast by the Meiji era.”

Doctors save lives, but that is only part of what they do. In addition, they help patients nearing the end to cope with their demise. Given the age of most of his patients, Setoue is often called upon to do this.

“I encounter many patients I am unable to heal,” he writes. “But … [e]ven a patient with only one day to live needs to be helped through that day.”

“Doctor Diaries” is a record of the help he has given to the islanders, and will help readers, too, to make it through their days.

David Cozy is a writer and critic, and a professor at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo.