Junko Umihara believes that self-expression is the key to a sound mind, but that’s not an unusual opinion among doctors treating patients for stress and other mental problems.

What sets the 50-year-old apart from many others in her profession, however, is that she practices what she preaches.

When not seeing patients at her clinic in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, Umihara takes to the stage to sing her own style of “chanson,” French story-telling ballads.

“Being a doctor means you often have to suppress your own feelings and remain calm and collected as you listen to your patients,” she explained. “But it’s impossible to always keep emotions hidden, as humans are emotional beings, and I find an outlet for expression through singing.”

She first began singing at jazz clubs when she was a student at Jikei University School of Medicine, taking to the stage because her father’s poor health forced her to find a way to pay tuition. But she turned her back on a professional singing career to become a doctor.

Opening a clinic for women in 1984, Umihara said she believes that over the years Japanese society has become generally more receptive to the concept that we suffer from stress.

“Back in 1984, the idea of stress wasn’t that well understood — there weren’t that many options in terms of women’s lifestyles and even if physical problems were stress-induced, a lot of women didn’t recognize them as such,” she said.

But as the rise of women in society accelerated, stress became a more common word and the understanding that work-induced stress could lead to serious physical consequences spread rapidly, she observed.

Women in Japan, according to the doctor, have another hurdle to overcome — the need to unfetter themselves of the stress that comes from within.

“Although Japanese women now work in a wide variety of occupations, I think many are still torn between a desire to live as they want and the feeling that they are obliged to live as others — general society — think is acceptable.”

Umihara describes Japanese society as one in which great importance is placed on belonging to a group, such as the workplace or mothers whose children go to the same kindergarten. As a result, many women feel that their position in society is determined by whether they fit in to that given group.

“In Western societies, a person’s position is not that strongly linked to the group and its ‘standards’ — for example, one may not be materially wealthy, but that does not mean that his or her character as a whole is rejected” by society, Umihara said.

She closed her first clinic in 1995 for a number of reasons, including the fact that her in-laws were affected by the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Suddenly relieved of the pressures of her job, she gained 12 kg and suffered an array of other problems, including skin rashes.

“I realized that I myself had been under huge stress while operating the clinic, but had been unconsciously suppressing it,” Umihara said. “Without my job, unable to wear anything in my wardrobe or wear much makeup, I felt that I’d lost everything.”

But that experience effectively brought her to where she is now.

“By suffering my losses, I felt much lighter, and from then on I pledged to listen to what my body said.”

Her present clinic opened in 1998, and she no longer sees so many patients that she cannot take lunch breaks, as was the norm during the years at her first clinic. The new clinic is as different from a medical practice as imaginable, with the scent of aromatic oils wafting through the main room, which is filled with plants, stuffed animals and other bric-a-brac.

“There are doctors who raise their eyebrows at the rather unorthodox way I work, as well as my singing on the side, but I don’t think of that as being stressful any more, because I am following my heart’s desire.”

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