Hideyo Noguchi: The Man on the 1000-yen Note

志を得ざれば再び此地を踏まず
Kokorozashi o ezareba futatabi konochi o fumazu

I will not step on this land again until I have achieved my goal.

A very few people’s life is like a story. A beginning, a middle, and an ending, all of them processing rationally, pushed by a singular force. Most of our lives are not like that: it happens seemingly randomly, because life is random. We grow up, then we don’t know what we will do, we get a job or enter a college depending which place will accept us, perhaps depending on our whims of that moment. Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata’s life feels like a story: he was born poor in rural Mexico, joined the rebellion against the autocrat Porfirio Diaz who monopolized the agriculture and exploited the poor, eventually rising to the leader of the Liberation Army, with the goal of returning the land to the poor, only to be killed in an ambush. His life seemed like a destiny within a chaotic period of Mexico, and people sang hymns of him, and he was the inspiration of the Zapatista movement many years later.

Noguchi, too, seemed to have a destiny. Like Zapatista, he had a burning passion against something he saw as an injustice, and still like the Mexican, he was eventually consumed by the fight.

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(Hideyo Noguchi)

In 1876, Hideyo Noguchi was born as Seisaku in a humble home to poor peasants by the Inawashiro Lake in Fukushima (the same state as the nuclear spill in 2011). When he was one year old, he crawled and fell into an irori, a Japanese fireplace used for cooking pots. His left hand was disfigured, with the fingers welded together by the heat, losing most of its mobility and functionality. It would become the catalyst of the driving force throughout his life.

He was picked on by his peers for his disfigurement, getting a nickname “Tembou”: “One-hand.” He was lonely for most of his childhood, turning to his studies in school and reading voraciously. His mother was a powerful encouragement, saying “If you can’t use your left hand, you have your right hand. Use your right hand. Use your head. Go above the bullies.”

When Seisaku was a teenager, shortly after entering school, he received surgery from a doctor, Kanae Watanabe, which recovered some of the movement and freed his fingers up. He was overcome by emotion and gratitude to this doctor and his medical feat that he swore to become a doctor to help those in need like he himself was. Diving into his studies in earnest, he scored top marks in many of the classes in his school, passing medical examinations and earning the favor and support of professors.

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(Seisaku/Hideyo on the left, with a friend. Notice the wrapped left hand)

Seisaku read a novel with a lazy protagonist with the same name, so he changed his name to Hideyo because he swore not be like the dissolute character.

Before departing his home to Tokyo, he carved a promise on a wooden pillar in his home, which still remains today:

I will not step on this land again until I have achieved my goal.

Hideyo went to Tokyo to study medicine, where he excelled. He passed the medicine qualification exam, a difficult exam which only 3 out of 80 passed. Perhaps because he could not find a job in Japan because of his hand, he decided to move to the United States to further his skills, getting a job as a research assistant at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in 1900. He catapulted up the ladder after success in research in poisonous snakes. He worked so tirelessly, that others remarked to each other, “When does the Japanese sleep?” He would stay up all night poring over his microscope, writing down meticulous notes.

He won fame when he discovered that a bacterium was the cause of a form of syphilis, which hereto was believed to be caused by a virus.

Showered in honors, he finally returned to Japan in 1915 to visit his aging mother. Her mother had pleaded him to come back just once so she could see him. Seemingly, Noguchi had felt he had achieved his goal so he stepped on his home again and reunited with his mother, who he had not seen in 15 years. It would be the last time he stepped foot on Japan.

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(Noguchi and his mother, Shika, during his only visit back home as an adult, 1915)

He returned to work at the Rockefeller Institute, married an American woman, he kept working, traveling extensively around the globe, attempting to cure yellow fever in Central America and South America. He earned some success and plaudits from the South American countries.

Obstinate in his mission to alleviate maladies in the world through medicine, he returned to work and forged ahead to Africa in 1928. In Gold Coast (Ghana), while researching its strain of yellow fever, he was infected with yellow fever just as he was preparing to return to the United States to finalize his research. His last words were “I don’t understand.”

Such was the story that impressed the Japanese so. Today his face graces the 1,000 yen banknote, and his story is taught to schoolchildren as an example of hard work and perseverance despite adversary.

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I went to his birth house and museum in Inawashiro, Fukushima, and I was admittedly impressed with his determination: the museum did a great job delineating his childhood and career achievements. However, it did not have any space reserved for criticism, something I noticed only later. Now the museum seemed more like a hagiography.

Noguchi supposedly inoculated orphaned children with syphilis to test their effect, something that would never fly in today’s medicine world. Moreover, he were not so rigorous in his research, often working in isolation, shunning any scrutiny from his colleagues.

Still, his life was impressive and a lesson in hard work. His museum in Inawashiro, Fukushima is highly recommended for those who want to learn about his life, despite it being slightly hagiographical. Like Emiliano Zapata, Noguchi’s life was a rare kind – he began by suffering, his life was a passionate quest in saving others from suffering, eventually being consumed by it. It does seem like a recipe of a hero.

aidu56l.jpg(Birth home of Hideyo Noguchi, in Inawashiro, Fukushima Prefecture)