To answer the question what is bioethics, professor Rihito Kimura wrote a book and more than a hundred articles. “It is a huge subject,” he said. “Many people think its focus is on medical issues, but it is much wider than that. It has ethical, legal and social implications too, in an environmental context. All of the components relate to life and death, and before life and after death.”
Originally a professor of law, Kimura became interested in bioethics long before the word was coined. In setting up his courses in the School of Human Sciences, Waseda University, he became an exponent of interdisciplinary studies. He prefers to describe his subject as “supra-interdisciplinary.”
The son of a scientist who was also a Waseda graduate, Kimura as a law student became interested in comparative law in Southeast Asia. For four years in the 1960s, he served as professor of comparative law at Chulalongkorn University Bangkok. For two following years he served as professor of Asian studies at Saigon University. He tells a story of a Vietnamese student asking him what he ate. Kimura told him fish, rice and tea. The student replied, “Don’t eat the fish or drink the water — and perhaps you shouldn’t eat the rice,” and showed him pictures of deformed infants and sick people. They suffered, he said, from water and soil contamination after the use of Agent Orange. Japanese fish geneticists discovered that the dioxin in the chemical affected DNA structure of exposed fish. “Medical ethics are required of physicians,” Kimura said. “But bioethics has a wider scope, encompassing the doctor, the patient, the ecology. It is an area of widening impact on everyone.”
Kimura moved to Europe, spending three years there when he became professor of human rights studies at the graduate school of ecumenical studies at the University of Geneva. He was also associate director of the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. He moved on to America when he became visiting scholar for two years at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University.
The School of Human Sciences at Waseda was a new department projected in 1982, timed to coincide with the university’s centennial. Kimura said of his appointment as professor of bioethics and law there: “Life itself is divided into many components. I wondered what should be done, in a new field of study, to integrate the divisions. It was a task.” He adds that Waseda has contributed greatly to the unique concept of bioethics, that “has its origins in the concern for the quality of life arising out of the civil rights movements of the ’60s.” Pioneer in this new field as he was, from the beginning Kimura wielded considerable influence. He said: “Bioethics is still not widely taught, but Waseda has a two-week mandatory course for freshmen, and a full-term mandatory course for upperclassmen. I lecture to a full house of 300 students, and I require full participation by my students in the discussion of bioethics.”
Kimura is also director of the International Asian Bioethics Program at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. He is adjunct professor at the department of family medicine in the medical school at Georgetown. He serves on numerous committees and councils and boards. Much of his work, he says, is mainly related to cross-cultural research and analysis of bioethical problems. He points out that everyone shares in important ethical concerns arising from advances of technology in medical fields. “But we might see these concerns in different ways according to our cultural background,” he said.
Kimura comes and goes regularly between Japan and the U.S. His wife, Keiko, a psychologist and a Waseda graduate, lives rather more in Washington than she does in Japan. She is an author and a reporter for NHK radio. The couple’s daughters and son move around the globe, each in a significant career, independent and cross-cultural. Kimura attributes his own energy and capacities to his “sense of joy.” He says he is very interested in many things, but for him “it is a pleasure and a privilege to be doing this work in bioethics.”
The College Women’s Association of Japan 2000 Lecture Series bears the theme “Merging Mosaic? Facing the Ethnical Challenges of the Global Community.” Their speaker at the Tokyo American Club on Thursday morning, Feb. 3, will be professor Rihito Kimura, whose subject is entitled, “Matters of Life and Death: Cultural Aspects of Bioethics.”
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