[From March Issue 2011]
Director General of Earth the Spaceship
Doctor YAMAMOTO Toshiharu had been dispatched to both West Africa and Afghanistan to work as a doctor. While stationed there, his personal goal was to ensure that the locals could continue to provide medical care among themselves after he and the other staff left, but he gradually began to feel that “there was only so much one doctor could do.” This realization led him to establish a nonprofit organization in 2004 called “Earth the Spaceship.”
The first time Yamamoto visited a foreign country was when he was in the sixth grade of elementary school. “My father, who was an oculist, had to go to South Africa for work, so I accompanied him for about two weeks. It was during the time of apartheid, and when I arrived at the airport, I was shocked to see that the gates for white people were separate from those for colored races,” he recalls. Later, Yamamoto went on to medical college planning to take over his father’s clinic, but because he wanted more control over his own life, he decided to major in both internal medicine and pediatrics.
Working as a doctor after graduation, Yamamoto earned a Doctor of Medicine degree while also engaging in gene therapy research. Before long, he became the Director of the general hospital in Kanagawa Prefecture, but felt conflicted about pursuing this career path, despite deciding to forego the family clinic. It was then that Yamamoto recalled the situations he witnessed in the developing countries he had often visited to take photographs, a hobby he enjoyed even after becoming a doctor.
“Even if an international cooperation organization builds a hospital, once they leave, it just ends up a concrete box,” he says. So he soon left the hospital’s directorship and registered with five international cooperation organizations as a doctor to be dispatched to developing countries. In 2001, he traveled to Sierra Leone, West Africa on behalf of Doctors Without Borders. After that experience, he supplied medical help in five other countries, including Afghanistan.
At present, while continuing to work as a doctor in Japan, Yamamoto spends most of the year on Earth the Spaceship activities. One of its main projects is increasing the number of professionals engaged in international cooperation. “International cooperation tends to be seen as voluntary, but a U.N. or government sponsored program pays over 8 million yen, which is double the average annual income of a Japanese worker. I would like it to be seen as a career path,” he says. In recent years, he has been cooperating with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in offering special classes at elementary and middle schools to introduce the possibilities of international cooperation offer.
Another ETS project is holding “drawing events” where people around the world draw “the things most important to them.” “Children in Africa draw water, children in Nepal draw schools, and children in Cambodia draw life without war and landmines. Through these drawings, you can see the problems those countries have,” he says, explaining that to date, more than 70 different countries have already participated in this project. “Our goal is to have 200 countries and regions participate,” Yamamoto says.