In the world of Shig Sato in 1991, our hero is dealing with the loss of his beloved police career due to forced retirement at age 60, But more importantly, he is mourning the death of his beloved wife, Miki, a physician who specialized in gerontology. Shig and Miki’s love was built on mutual respect, admiration, and dedication to serving others. Miki’s desire to become a doctor was born in the war years of the 1940s when as a young teen she helped out her uncle, a doctor, and aunt, a nurse, caring for wounded in the aftermath of the air raids in Nagoya and surrounding areas in her home prefecture of Aichi.
But was it a realistic goal for a young woman in the 1940s? Perhaps. The story of women in medicine Japan dates back as far as the ancient healers and midwives. Changes to modern Japan came after it opened itself to the West in the 1850s – the modern world came to Japan’s shores. This led to opportunities for determined women. Ginko Ogino (pictured) was the first licensed and practicing woman physician in Japan in the 1880s, practicing obstetrics and gynecology. Kei Okama was the first Japanese woman to earn a degree in Western medicine, having studied at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania while she and her husband were in the United States. She graduated in 1889 and upon her return to Japan she worked at the Jikei University School of Medicine hospital and opened her own clinic. Like Ogino, Okama was married to a Japanese Christian.
Educational opportunities for women expanded in postwar Japan, but old traditions die hard. A young woman with intelligence, determination and drive faced a daunting academic and practical education in order to be a practicing physician. Prevailing misogynistic attitudes were always a challenge to overcome. And family pressures to marry and have children prevailed. Perhaps Miki Sato was born at the right time – when she began her medical studies in the early 1950s, fewer barriers existed than during the time of Ogino and Okama. Perhaps she met the right man: Shig Sato came from a family of strong women he respected and admired. Still, the economic boom that helped lead Japan to the join Western democracies was still decades away. Miki, and her country, were finding their way in the modern world.