世界で活躍するグローバル・リーダーを bimonthly (隔月ごと）にYGCでインタビューしていきます。全て英語でインタビューが記載されていますので、是非最後まで頑張って読んでいきましょう！
- Getting right to the topic, could you tell us what space means to you? What made you decide to become an astronaut?
Earth is part of space and in a sense, a place where I am physically. Generally speaking, space is filled with mysteries and since it is limited to only a select few who are able to go, many people consider it to be a place that is just very far away. But, wherever we live we are surrounded by space. Hence why I perceive it as my world; a place actually not that far from where we all are.
As for me, it all started in 1983 when our country was recruiting astronauts. Back then, I believed that American or the Russian military personnel were the only ones able to become astronauts. NASDA (National Space Development Agency of Japan; currently the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) was not interested in recruiting astronauts for pilot positions, but rather scientists and technicians who could research and investigate the field of zero gravity space. From that moment, I wanted to see the Earth from space and knew for sure that this experience would no doubt deepen my thoughts and expand my horizons. This was my calling, so I applied for the position.
Space is just filled with enigmatic charm: We human beings are drawn to this charm and approach it in innumerable ways. In terms of science and technology, there are people who develop planetary probes in order to reach distant places in space and come closer to understanding how the universe began. Having been inspired by space as one of nature’s biggest wonders, some people write things such as the mandala (a Buddhist doctrine) or traditional Japanese poetry. I may have been inspired by sentiments such as these on some level.
- As a graduate of Keio University, you were the first woman to become a cardiovascular surgeon at its associated hospital. You are the first Japanese woman in space as well as the first Japanese citizen to complete two space missions. There is always a first in every field which usually comes with challenges. How have such challenges affected you or your career?
I never really thought of it as a challenge as I was involved in things I love doing. Whether you are the first or second to accomplish something in any field, there are always hardships that come along in pursuing that path and I believe that you have to work just as hard. The only difference in the first round is the insufficiency of data that emits uncertainty, and who is to say that just because you succeeded in the first round that it guarantees success thereafter? If you wish to better what we now have, it takes a whole new challenge and achieving something new is an accumulation of that.
- You have dealt with many people from many different countries in your career as an astronaut. What did you feel were your biggest strengths or issues as a Japanese person in that setting?
I feel that there are big differences among each one of us, as individuals rather than as members of a certain race or nationality. There may be American people that I get along with, but not with Japanese people at times. I often think about my personal strengths and weaknesses, but not from the perspective that I am Japanese or a woman. So long as you fulfil your duties and responsibilities in the profession you choose and receive the necessary and proper training in the respective field, race, age, and sex really do not matter. I really do not think in today’s world that people dwell much on this issue though.
- When you first stepped outside of Japan, what were some of the difficulties (if any) that you experienced when working overseas or dealing with people from other countries?
I have only had fun, positive memories of the time I spent especially in Houston as I was involved in things I love doing. When going to space, we take around 100 experiments from all over the world to conduct in space. The thought of experimenting with them in space and finding out what happens excited me to my core and all I could think of was just going to space. When you are passionate about things you love doing, you just pour all your heart and soul into doing them that you hardly feel any exhaustion or pain.
On the other hand, there were limited opportunities for Japanese nationals back when I was an astronaut as the United States played a central role in space research and development. I have put in a lot of energy and effort into global recognition of Japan’s quality and contribution to space research and development. I can say with hope that my team and I have brought Japan’s presence to this global endeavor and that we now see many talented Japanese astronauts.
In addition to this, I found myself in a tenuous situation when I felt there were limitations to what I could do when an unfortunate disaster struck a space shuttle effectively postponing the next journey two years later. I can only process this by accepting such situations as unfortunate twists of fate. This can be exemplified by the Olympic Games where only one athlete can attain one gold medal in one athletic sport, though there are many athletes who are all very much capable. I at times have to believe that you need luck by your side with effort.
- Having worked in Japan and overseas, what do you think are the biggest differences of the two environments?
I would say that cultural gaps played a big difference in the range of professions. I found myself having to find big gaps from when I was in the medical world and the space research field. The mentalities of a space pilot and a payload specialist (PS) are very much different: The pilots from the U.S. team have come from the air force or naval force and there are cultural differences among these pilots, scientists, and medical doctors.
There are also geographical differences. The vast land of the United States differs from the small island nation of Japan which seems to cast influence on the sense of values between the two countries. I felt that you needed big gestures and expressions to get your point across in the United States, which I thought were apparent even in how the food is presented from its flavorful taste to its vibrant colors.
As an island nation comprised of racially homogenous people, Japan has a unique culture of harmonizing with others where a word to the wise is sufficient. In contrast, the United States is a multicultural nation where a distinct concept many not be perceived how it was meant to be conveyed originally, hence, why it developed and flourished in the realm of system engineering where anyone could understand and concede to an exclusive answer. When establishing a new country where people from many different backgrounds come together, it would thus be essential to embrace this.
I wanted to become a doctor ever since I could remember and left home at the age of 14. When I left Japan to go to Houston, where I ended up living for twenty years, I was mesmerized by the easefulness, graciousness, and ingenuousness of the American people and how different one culture can be from another. One example was when I ordered a beer, it came out in a bottle and when I asked for a glass – people were amazed by this and they said to me, “Why bother?” Back then in Japan, it was frowned upon when a lady would drink things directly from a bottle or container. I daringly drank straight from the bottle and I tell you, it felt revitalizing and liberating! Things considered rude back home were rather enlivening.
- What makes you the happiest when you are working?
I truly believe that being engaged in anything, especially when working, allows a human being to thrive. This especially is true when you apply yourself to the fullest in fulfilling your duties and responsibilities when getting paid as a professional.
I became a doctor because I wanted to help people who suffer from illnesses and diseases, and I also became an astronaut as I initially wanted to see the Earth from space. I currently am involved in the educational field in space research and development at a university, but I can say that I was able to become both a doctor and an astronaut because I received an education. To achieve one’s dreams, I truly believe it is necessary that we all have equal educational opportunities. Education is merely a tool for one’s self-actualization.
In that sense, education is not only for children. I plan to dedicate my time into ensuring that education is a means to an end for making our lives better and that learning is a life-long journey that we all should enjoy and helps us look forward to a greater tomorrow. Surrounding me with people of that frame of mind would no doubt make me happy.
- We can be proud of Japan’s state-of-the-art technology and advances in the realm of space research and development, health care quality, supercomputers, and manufacturing and craftsmanship. However, when it comes to English education, Japan ranks as having one of the lowest in the world. Why do you think this is so?
One big factor is, we have not put much emphasis on listening and speaking. I too struggled in these areas as I was not born and raised in the United States. During my days as a doctor, I was able to read and write theses, but when it came to listening and speaking, it was extremely difficult. But, unlike the academic world, technical terms and content trump grammar in the medical and space field. It is rather vital to communicate in a clear, succinct language. On the one hand, however, it would be arduous to decipher English expressions and terminologies without knowing its literary culture.
Children these days in Japan are fortunate that they can now be exposed to English on a deeper level: They listen to native English speakers first hand and there are many media programs that can teach them English while also having fun. There are now so many people who go in and out of the country that English is no longer considered a barrier compared to my days when I was young. We also see many children who are not embarrassed, but confident when speaking English.
- What issues do you think Japan faces in keeping up with global standards of education? In your opinion, what do you think is necessary in Japan to boost English education and keep up with globalization?
I cannot stand the thought of educating children by framing them within concepts gnarled by adults. As epitomized by the art of bonsai, it is like bending or cutting foliage that want to go free in all directions for the purpose of making it look more attractive. But, this is truly from a “grown-up” perspective. Japan has historically placed value in each and every one aiming for an average grade. Is this what we really want in education? Could we not appreciate one’s uniqueness and nurture it? Furthermore, shouldn’t teachers not only transfer knowledge, but also convey the fun in learning?
Education really is about drawing out the children’s innate qualities and potential and to do this, we need education to be delivered in a compassionate style. Undeniably, mandatory education is essential to read and write, to calculate things, and to live our lives, but education should be a ground to pursue children’s aspirations in accordance with what they are passionate about. I think we live in an era that has made this possible through flexible learning online, whenever and wherever.
As AI advances, it won’t be necessary to remember information on a detailed level. Instead, it would be important to assess whether information is accurate and develop your own thoughts through this process. Creativity would no doubt become a more valuable skill.
- You currently lead the Space Colony Research Center at Tokyo University of Science where you continue to conduct technical research through space development. What is it that you do there? Also, what is your next career goal?
At the Space Colony Research Center, we aim to make “living in moon” a reality by conducting various research to enable life in space. When speaking of space exploration, it mostly refers to space shuttles and artificial satellites, but it also involves huge investments in various, specialized fields. “Dual space-earth development” is all about implementing technologies that could also be done on Earth to sustain life such as nourishing energy and clean water and disposing garbage. We conduct research to contribute to things that could save and sustain the Earth along the way while undergoing space explorations and experiments.
The Americans are continuing their research and plans for lunar tourism to take people to the moon. In fact, moon colonization is bound to happen sooner than we think. With this expectation in mind, my next career goal is to become a flight attendant on a spaceship aboard moon sight-seeing (I know that I would be good at it!). How great would it be if I could take you all to the moon?!
- Who do you respect as a global leader?
In the scientific world, I would choose the two-time Nobel Prize winner, Marie Curie. Or maybe Malala Yousafzai. Yousafzai’s speech at the United Nations, quoting, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world” is indisputably a powerful message. The school emblem at my alma mater of Keio University also uses a pen which is inspired by the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” This resonates with all ideas of education having the power to change the world.
- Please give a message to the young generation who aspire to become future global leaders.
Simply put, I love the phrase, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” You can realize any dream if you put your heart and soul into it. Again, education and learning make that possible. Life is short, so take actions to realize your self-actualization through the power of education!