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Doctor Tetsu Nakamura and his Zayū no Mei

Arashiyama Hanatōro, Nison-in 嵐山花灯路・二尊院

On December 4, 2019, Doctor Tetsu Nakamura (中村哲), a physician from Fukuoka, was shot in a targeted killing in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, by forces who objected to his decades of humanitarian work in the region. One of his major achievements had been to divert water from the mountains by digging canals, mostly by manual rather than heavy machinery; for this he drew inspiration from centuries old water irrigation methods in his native Fukuoka. This not only brought clean water to the area, it revived more than 16,000 hectares of desertified land, so that it was green and arable again. As a medical doctor who had arrived in the region originally to treat Hansen's disease (leprosy) patients, his abiding conviction was that antibiotics and medical care did not truly 'cure' people; in order for people to be healthy, one needed clean water, and enough food.

Dr. Nakamura's life and work is described the best in this obituary, written by a reporter who met and interviewed him. Dr. Nakamura was not that famous in Japan, although he was not unknown either; he did make some media appearances when he was back in Japan, mainly to raise awareness and funds for his non-profit organization, the Peshawar-kai.I had heard of him, but didn't pay much attention, until his death. (One reason is that he is far from the only Japanese person working around the world to better lives, although few of them get much attention, even in Japan.) But when he died so tragically, it was headline news in Japan, which had many people who had not heard of him before mourning for him. Major news outlets have continued to follow his story and dig up interviews they had done with him.

"Zayū no Mei", words to live by

NHK did an in-depth interview with Dr. Nakamura in October, which is available on NHK World with subtitles. In it, he mentions his zayū no mei (座右の銘), which can be translated as words to live by, ones life motto. His was Ichigū o Terasu - 照于一隅, which comes from this line: 径寸十枚是れ国宝にあらず一隅を照らす是れ即ち国宝なり」. It means, paraphrasing a little, "Gold and silver and precious stones are not national treasures. A person who lives as best they can, shining their light in a small corner of the world -- that person is a true national treasure".

Ichigū o Terasu is also the motto of the Tendai school of Buddhism; it was written by its founder, Dengyō-Daishi, known as Saichō during his lifetime. The photo above shows a screen from Nisō-in in Arashiyama, Kyoto (a Tendai school temple), on which the phrase is written.

But that does not mean Dr. Nakamura was a Buddhist, or trying to push his particular religion in Afganistan in anyway. He was actually a Christian (his funeral was held at a multi-denominational funeral facility in Fukuoka, and originally went to Afganistan to work at the Peshawar Christian Hospital, where he was a staff doctor from 1984 to 1990.

I am not a religious person, probably because I am too cynical. And I have seen so many examples recently of religion twisted and distorted, to suit the selfish needs of some. But in the right hands, the teachings of religion can be an inspiration. But it has to be the right hands.

One of the many regrets that I have in life is that I have always lacked focus. Perhaps trying to find my zayū no mei would help the light the way, just a little. Even if I can not even aspire to be such a humble yet visionary man like Dr. Nakamura.



  • Top photo by 松岡明芳 Akiyoshi Matsuoka [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
  • It's been widely reported that Dr. Nakamura was a Protestant Christian, but obviously not one to look down on other religions. His Japanese Wikipedia page says he was a Baptist, but that has a 'citation needed' note.

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