Working as a sports physician for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) delegation at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games was a dream-come-true for Kentaro Onishi. His intercultural journey with AFS started when he was a 16-year-old boy in Japan. Today, he is a successful doctor living in the United States, preparing to serve at the Olympics again at the 2020 Tokyo games. In his interview with AFS, Kentaro explains the impact of the AFS experience on his life and career choices.
How did you decide to study abroad with AFS?
Since I was little, I wanted to be a physician. My grandfather, who was the only physician in my immediate family, always told me that it is important to have the medical knowledge to treat patients, but that it is equally important to empathize with and understand the patients who may be feeling vulnerable due to physical ailments. To be a good doctor, I knew I had to be exposed to different ways of thinking and understand different cultural backgrounds and beliefs of people.
My home country Japan maintained relative cultural solidarity, and rarely gave me a chance to experience different cultures. When I was 16, my grandfather and mother recommended me to consider an exchange program through AFS. It was an intimidating thought at first to be away from my home for an entire year, but I am glad things happened in the way it did.
How did your intercultural experience with AFS impact your life after the program?
My AFS year was filled with both self-reflection and appreciation. Cultural adaptation is never easy because seeing things done differently is almost always stressful. But these “challenges” really allowed me to reflect on my own values, weakness, and strengths.
Such reflection, I believe, is a necessary process for one’s growth to assume the profession as a physician. I was also appreciative of all the support I received from my American family, the Spencers and friends. I knew they were not obligated to help. But this experience allowed me to appreciate the importance of giving helping hands when someone is “in darkness” or struggling. Sometimes it does not take resolving the hardship, but a simple act of my friend simply listening to me could make a world of difference. Obviously, today I try to cure diseases of my patients, but I make a point to remember that the power of kind gestures.
During my exchange year, I ran the Big Sur marathon (in California, USA), which is one of the most beautiful marathons in the world. Now I organize a marathon relay for people from all over the world – this year alone people from 57 countries joined us. That’s also an impact of my AFS exchange – I go back to California every year to visit my host family, and that’s how I met my wife. Now I can give back and bring people together for this beautiful run.
Now you are a part of the Olympic Games?
Yes, I was a physician delegate for the IOC at the PyeongChang Games. The opportunity to serve and help the IOC put me in a “perfect AFS position”: I didn’t have to pick sides between the US and Japan, but rather, I wanted to serve to help athletes from all over the world. I put my medical training to good use at the Olympic Games, as I knew such opportunity is hard to come by only two years after graduation from my post-graduate training (Kentaro Onishi completed his sports medicine training at Mayo Clinic, Rochester).
I felt like being an AFSer again at PyeongChang. I didn’t see where the people were from but what their spirit is like. That’s what I learned from AFS: take people as human beings and what they represent, instead of judging them by their nationality or religion.
What are your plans for the future?
My belief about “sports medicine” is about treating individuals who have functional or activity goals and their performance level does not define them. I will treat those who can run 4 minute mile or 15 minute mile equally, just so long as they have a functional or activity goal in life. Someone’s goal of running a marathon under 2 hours and 30 minutes is no more important than someone’s wish to be able to hike with their grandchildren pain-free in the arthritic joints. I want to thrive to be a skilled physician who is able to maintain a humane side and listen to their concerns.
Thank you, AFS!