IWAKI, Fukushima -- A hospital director here has taken to visiting elderly patients dressed as period drama characters in an attempt to cheer them up.
Hiroaki Shinmura, 50, head of Tokiwakai Joban Hospital, tends to dress as the Zenigata Heiji character, an Edo-period policeman, when he makes his visits, but is happy to switch to other characters such as Toyama no Kin-san and Mito Komon in response to patients' requests.
Female nurses also dress up and accompany Shinmura, as he tries to fulfill his dream of creating a community in which "elderly people would like to live."
The prefectural city of Iwaki was heavily affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. In the aftermath of the disaster, water and electricity at Joban Hospital stopped running, putting the hospital under immense pressure. The number of dialysis patients at the hospital, which was about 700, was the largest in Fukushima Prefecture at the time.
A few years later, around 2015, Shinmura kicked off his costumed home visits, which he conducts once a month.
In one of his more recent visits, he went to the Iwaki home of a woman in her 80s, dressed as Zenigata Heiji and carrying the appropriate props -- bringing a smile to the woman's face as she greeted him at the door.
"How's your condition?" Shinmura asked the woman. "The color of your face is healthy," he told the woman's husband, who jokingly replied, "The afterlife is full up. Apparently they don't want us yet," adding, "Your visits somehow manage to cheer us up."
In the aftermath of 3.11, it became impossible to provide dialysis to patients at Joban Hospital, each of whom required the treatment three times a week. Shinmura took action and asked the Fukushima Prefectural Government as well as medical institutions across the prefecture to help out. However, the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster had put the entire prefecture in a state of confusion, prompting Shinmura to seek help in other prefectures. In the end, institutions and local governments in Tokyo, Chiba and Niigata prefectures accepted the dialysis patients and their relatives, and all the patients were saved.
The sight of the relieved patients was a turning point in Shinmura's life. "I came to realize that life is transient and that infrastructure, which I previously considered to be very robust, is in fact fragile. It made me think that if there's anything that can be done now, I should do it immediately."
In late March 2011, Shinmura returned to Joban Hospital and examined a considerable number of patients including those who had evacuated from their homes following the power plant disaster. He noticed that there was a sadness and lack of vitality in the patients' expressions. The number of patients with mobility issues increased, perhaps due to a reluctance to venture outside because of radiation fears, raising demand for home visits.
However, he noticed that visiting patients' homes in white coats was not conducive to frank conversation, because it felt like they were at the hospital. Then one day, Shinmura had a "eureka" moment. He appeared in a period costume for an event for inpatients, who seemed delighted by the sight, and Shinmura slapped his knee, saying, "This is it!"
The realization prompted him to purchase kimonos, wigs and props from a firm specializing in stage costumes. He then got into character and discovered that visiting elderly patients' homes dressed as Zenigata Heiji put the patients at ease and led to them talking about events in their daily lives. It also helped Shinmura understand his patients' concerns, joys and lifestyle habits.
Around New Year's, Shinmura tends to dress as the god of wealth, Daikokusama. When plum flowers blossom, he goes for Mito Komon and when cherry blossoms emerge, he opts for Toyama no Kin-san. In total, there are no fewer than 50 characters in his repertoire, which includes fairytale characters such as Kintaro.
In the aftermath of the Kumamoto Earthquake, in April 2016, Shinmura sent backup staff to clinics in the city of Kumamoto, partly to repay his gratitude for the support he received for his dialysis patients after the 3.11 disaster.
Even as this interview is taking place, Shinmura is on his way to do another home visit dressed in character. "Take care," say hospital staff members and patients with a smile, as he heads for another period drama-style visit.
(Japanese original by Shinichi Kurita, Tokyo Regional News Department)