Shigeaki Hinohara, Japan’s centenarian doctor, dies at 105

Shigeaki Hinohara. Kyodo News photo

TOKYO — Shigeaki Hinohara, honorary head of St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo who continued practicing as a doctor after turning 100 and was a well-respected cultural figure, died from respiratory failure on July 18, the hospital said. He was 105.

During his more than half-century as a physician at one of Tokyo’s leading hospitals, Hinohara pioneered comprehensive medical checkups, which have today become standard for many middle-aged Japanese, and advocated preventive medicine. Partially based on his experiences in the United States, Hinohara was also a proponent of patients-first medical care and stressed the importance of boosting the quality of life for terminal-stage patients.

In 2000, Hinohara established a movement urging senior citizens to remain socially involved and stressing the contribution they can make. The movement later spread nationwide, and his essay anthology on ways to live well, published the following year, became a bestseller.

An iconic figure representing the active elderly, Hinohara delivered speeches across Japan even after he became a centenarian. Many fans in Japan and abroad were captivated by his talks, which included such uplifting messages as how anyone can change his or her life at any age.

Hinohara died at his home in Tokyo after declining steps to extend his life, Tsuguya Fukui, the current hospital head, told a July 18 news conference. Fukui said the centenarian was suffering from age-related ailments that affected his heart and digestive organs.

Hinohara “clearly refused” life-extension steps when he was hospitalized in March, Fukui said, adding that within days, he returned to his home, where he spent his last days.

He was completely bedridden in the final week or two, while he had been moving around in his living room or yard by wheelchair until then, according to Fukui.

Hinohara was born on Oct. 4, 1911. A native of Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan, he graduated from the school of medicine at Kyoto Imperial University in 1937 and went on to study at its graduate school. He then began working at St. Luke’s Hospital in 1941 as a physician.

A pious Christian, he also studied at Emory University in the U.S. In 1992, he became the head of St. Luke’s. He went on to receive the Order of Culture from the government in 2005.

In 1970, he was a passenger aboard a Japan Airlines plane hijacked by members of the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction. He later recounted his experience as a captive, saying that the incident drastically changed his view of life and that he decided to dedicate his life to others.

“He has made great contributions to the advancement of medicine for a long period of time. He is one of the persons who built the foundations of Japanese medicine,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Touching on the deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, Suga praised Hinohara’s decision to accept a number of victims at the hospital, which he was in charge of.

Hinohara’s comments made on numerous occasions have inspired many people, as words of wisdom derived from his century-long experience.

“Comparing life to a baseball game, I’m in the ninth inning but the most important (part of) life will begin now. I would like to continue my work until around the 15th inning for children,” he said at a press conference in April 2007 as he was designated an ambassador of the Japan Committee for the United Nations Children’s Fund.

“My goal is still far away. I would like to become Japan’s oldest person on record without retiring, as I will keep working from now on,” Hinohara also said after his lecture in October 2014 on his 103rd birthday.

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