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Sunday, Jan. 30, 2005


Counselor counters the blues through chanson and jazz

Staff writer

Junko Umihara turned up a bit late for our interview at a cafe in Tokyo's Hiroo district one afternoon recently. She had been with a patient at her Umihara Mental Clinic in nearby Minato Ward, she said, "and counseling took a bit longer than scheduled."

News photo
Junko Umihara

Looking a picture of liveliness and energy, it was hard to imagine just what a busy life Umihara actually leads.

A pioneer in the field of women's all-round health, Umihara is a specialist in stress-related matters and has been running her clinic for women for more than 20 years. In addition, she answers readers' letters on related issues for a major daily newspaper; she has similar slots on air, including her weekly "Junko Umihara's Radio Clinic" on Radio Nikkei; she is constantly sought out by journalists for quotes and opinions; and -- neither last nor least -- she writes books on all manner of topics related to women's psychology, relationships and daily stress at work.

That, though, is only half the story -- because Umihara is also a professional chanson/jazz singer who last year gave 12 concerts at live venues both in Tokyo and outside.

Time off? Between September and Christmas, Umihara had just 3 1/2 days free. "It was simply too busy," she says. "I was planning to take some time to catch a cold over New Year, but I didn't manage to get one," she says with a smile.

Seen from the outside, Umihara may simply seem to be a busy doctor who is so miraculously energetic that she can wear two hats. From her perspective, though, all she is doing is making the best use of her various abilities by channeling them into separate areas of her lifestyle.

"I am a doctor and I am a singer. Both occupations reflect myself," she explains. "I am trying to express various parts of myself in different ways."

When Umihara opened her clinic in 1984, it was the only one of its kind in Japan specializing in women's health, with services ranging from cancer check-ups to counseling and mental health treatments. Back then, she was often wrongly described as a gynecologist, because what she was trying to do in her clinic just didn't fit any existing categories.

Over the years, however, the number of patients has grown steadily along with the increasing number of women in the workforce, and her work there became nothing if not hectic. "During the first 10 years I couldn't take time for lunch and I was always working till late," she says. "And sometimes I saw about 50 patients a day."

News photo
Junko Umihara on stage in Roppongi, Tokyo (Takao Miyakaku photo)

An expert on stress she may be, but stress may have taken its toll on Umihara, too. During those years, she recalls, "If I wanted to express myself through, for example, writing poems, I couldn't -- I didn't have time, and I became increasingly frustrated about that. I felt that half of myself was not living -- and finally, I became sick myself."

Sure enough, about 10 years after she opened her clinic, Umihara herself fell -- so ill, in fact, that at one point she found it hard to speak properly and had to close her clinic temporarily.

It was around at that time that music came back into her life.

Years before, when she was a medical student in Tokyo, Umihara had been a regular singer at a jazz club in Shinjuku for about five years, and she had an abiding love of jazz. "Suddenly, after about 20 years, I had a chance to sing again, and I felt so happy," she recalls. "I remembered the days when I was singing at the club, and I remembered the feeling that it was a place where I could really become myself."

Fueled by such warm memories revived, at that turning point in her life Umihara decided to downsize her medical practice to focus on counseling -- and to take lessons and get back on stage, which she did in 1999 as a chanson singer.

Now, though she is busy as a doctor during the days, at night she often becomes an entertainer. "Working as a doctor requires a lot of thinking and analysis," she says, "while performing as a singer expresses my emotional side. Together they form a good balance in life."

Although she says she is often asked how she can be a professional in such different areas, Umihara does not think the two have no connection. On the contrary, she believes, "medicine and music relate closely."

"Modern medicine has developed in the past 100 years or so, but before that I think that medicine had more of a sense of healing -- like through art, rather than technology. Music, on the other hand, seems to have gone the opposite way, and has come to focus too much on technique rather than on its healing influences.

"So, I want to perform music that's somehow in that spirit of medical care -- while also practicing medicine with a flavor of art."

The new challenge that Umihara has set herself to combine medicine and music will be realized next month, when she will hold a concert titled "Live of Music Therapy" in Tokyo's Harajuku district. Then, as well as simply singing, she will ask audience members to pass her a short note about any worries or problems so that she will comment on what they have submitted.

"I believe that in this way my role will sort of combine two things: body and mind, or the ways of thinking of Western medicine and Eastern medicine."

To her, indeed, "it is only natural" to lead careers in both medicine and singing.

But still, she says, she is not satisfied.

"I need something more to express other parts of myself," Umihara says with a twinkle in her eye that suggests she already has something in mind.

For now, though, all she would say was: "If you are born as a human, you want to make use of all the possibilities you have before you die, don't you?"

Who knows (beside Umihara) what will be the next hat she wears . . .

For other stories in our package on multi-takers, please click the following links:

One life that bridges many realms By SETSUKO KAMIYA 'Secret' writer joins Diet drama By YOKO HANI

'Curiosity' at the core of days packed with lots to chew on By SETSUKO KAMIYA

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