Yoshiki Ishikawa seems to have it all and then some. As a scientist specializing in public health, Ishikawa has degrees from top-level universities including Harvard, where he graduated from the famed T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Brilliance and success appear to follow him wherever he goes and you’d think Ishikawa would have no trouble with English.
“On the contrary,” smiles the 37-year-old. “When I came across my first English language textbook in junior high, I was like, ‘meh.’ I doubt if I could say the alphabet all the way to the letter Z. English didn’t interest me. It was something I had to study and that was about it.”
But, we ask, you do use English in your work, don’t you?
“That’s different,” says Ishikawa. “The English of the academia is not the same as day-to-day conversational English. I can deploy English in my field of expertise. I can write papers and give presentations. But when it comes to making jokes and small talk, I’m stumped. I’m often in a quandary, plagued by questions I inflict on myself. For example, someone says the word ‘health.’ I immediately start thinking of where that word comes from, and that the verb form of ‘health’ is ‘heal.’ Heal means to make whole, or complete. And so on. The conversation has moved on, while I’m still stuck on one word. It’s a habit that can get pretty inconvenient.”
Ishikawa adds that the habit assailshim whether the conversation is in English or Japanese.
“People throw out words and topics, and my mind takes hold of a single concept and goes off on a different tangent. I’m always questioning the meaning and origins of words. … The good thing is my mind is never bored.”
Ishikawa discovered the art of keeping boredom at bay during his two years in Harvard.
“I just could NOT understand what everyone was saying, but their words fascinated me nonetheless,” he recalls. “So I listened hard, and because I couldn’t talk fast, I learned to keep my own sentences simple and concise. During speech class, I spoke at my own pace, very slowly and simply, and the professor said, ‘Bravo, you spoke like the queen of England.’ After that, I stopped worrying about how I sounded.”
Now that he’s back in Japan, Ishikawa says he’s “more relaxed, but there’s more things to ponder. I often can’t make out what my wife is saying, and we’re both Japanese! It’s that thing with words again. Language can be profoundly fascinating.”
Ishikawa looks upon his Harvard days with great affection, maybe because he got there when he was 26.
“In Japan, all my friends had jobs and solid lives. And here I was, four years shy of 30, with nothing I could call my own. But in Harvard, age didn’t matter. The fact that I couldn’t speak much English didn’t matter. My professors were only interested in who I was, and what I wanted out of Harvard.”
So Ishikawa buckled down and worked to find himself.
“Everyone around me was the same. Everyone had a goal and their unique method of grabbing it. Every day became an adventure, and I felt I was finally going somewhere.”
Harvard also gave Ishikawa a chance to face the history of his birthplace, Hiroshima.
“I realized the impact the nuclear bomb continues to have on the rest of the world,” he said. “My classmates and friends almost expected me to be frank about Hiroshima and share my views about it. So when I was asked to introduce myself, I decided to include the bit about my hometown. It gave people something to remember.”
Ishikawa may still find English communication to be a struggle, but in the end, he says, “there are more important things than learning to speak perfect English. An attractive personality and a nice smile will really take you places.” (Kaori Shoji)
石川善樹 （いしかわ よしき）
1981年広島県生まれ。東京大学医学部健康科学・看護学科卒業後、ハーバード大学公衆衛生大学院修了。自治医科大学より博士号取得。予防医学研究者。（株）Campus for H共同創業者。著書に『疲れない脳をつくる生活習慣』（プレジデント社）、『最後のダイエット』（マガジンハウス）など。