Retro Japan, modern Japan, kabuki, Noh, robots—I discovered these aspects of Japanese culture through the Internet when I was a student and was completely fascinated. See, in Lebanon, people are generally not very familiar with Asian culture; they are typically more knowledgeable about European or American culture. So after finishing my pre-medical education and having some time on my hands, I really wanted to show Lebanese people how I saw Japan and what it has to offer. I decided to establish a club at my university dedicated to Japanese culture, and this was when the American University of Beirut Japanese Cultural Club was born. The Club grew into a great success, even earning the direct patronage from the Japanese embassy and winning first prize at a festival for the Japanese float we made! I eventually taught myself some Japanese and was determined to go to Japan.
When it was time to graduate, I knew I wanted to persue my studies unraveling the mysteries of the brain. Neuroscience, psychiatry, neurology, and psychology were all interesting for me, as I had an undying passion towards brain science. Thankfully, I was awarded a scholarship and got the opportunity to study at a Japanese university. There was no place I would rather go than Kyoto, which for me was “Real Japan”. So I ended up in Kyoto University, where I got a degree in the field of neuropsychiatry. Studying in Kyoto, Japan's cultural capital, allowed me to immerse myself in the traditional arts of Japan that I so loved. I went to live kabuki and Noh, practiced kyudo, attended all sorts of Japanese festivals and did everything that I could do to satisfy my quench for ancient Japan.
While in Kyoto, I read some publications by the Department of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Tokyo and was impressed. I visited the lab and was excited by how excellently resources are allocated. I also really appreciated the multimodal approach to neuropsychiatry conducted by the department, which integrates a variety of assessment tools in the imaging, molecular and genetic fields. After seeing all that the University of Tokyo had to offer, I was convinced that I wanted to pursue my studies there. Once I took the infamous entrance exam and passed the interview, I was admitted into UTokyo!
I first joined the Department of Neuropsychiatry and then the Department of Child Neuropsychiatry. I would like to briefly talk about the research done in these two departments.
Clinically, the Department of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Tokyo integrates value-based psychiatry as a core approach to psychiatric care.
The value-based psychiatry model includes the brain, the real world, and the life course. When I say brain, I mean a multimodal approach of studying the brain by integrating different approaches of cutting-edge diagnostic and assessment tools, as I mentioned earlier.
As for the real world, we focus on two aspects, person-centered and community based. The person-centered approach involves understanding patients' lives and putting ourselves in their shoes, trying to imagine what they have been through and really understand their problems. Meanwhile, the community-based approach takes us outside the hospital and into the community so that we can aid those that require our department’s help, such as those affected by natural disasters and the homeless. Our department also helps in suicide prevention as well as community development.
Finally, the life course is about putting patients back on track and trying to re-integrate them into society, which we think is a an essential part of psychiatric care. Here, it is essential to recognize the importance of the adolescent period as a critical developmental stage, that if disrupted leads to different psychiatric disorders.
This importance is also central to the Department of Child Neuropsychiatry, of which I am now a member. This department provides research and clinical training to child psychiatrists and psychologists, and also conducts comprehensive research on developmental disorders, such as autism, Tourette's syndrome and ADHD.
As for my research, I study disorders like ADHD, Tourette’s and schizophrenia, and currently concentrate on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which I study in depth. Some of our most recent clinical trials have been on the use of oxytocin and its role in alleviating the severity of core symptoms in autism. We found that we were able to improve the social skills of autistic individuals with the administration of oxytocin, which is quite a promising result that we want to pursue further.
I generally split my time between the hospital clinic where we draw blood from the patients, the MRI room, where we take their brain scans and give them brief questionnaires, the wet lab where we preprocess the blood samples and the dry lab where we analyze the imaging data. I also spend a lot of time analyzing other data and statistics gained through our research. Since I'm so busy, I don't have much time to take classes. I am currently taking only one class!
Most of our patients are Japanese, and the other students working in my lab are all Japanese. In fact, I think I'm the only international student in my department, and I'm currently the only Lebanese student in the entire university! I typically communicate in English with my peers, but will switch to Japanese if necessary. By the way, I speak 3.5 languages: English, Arabic, French and Japanese (Japanese is the .5). I'd like to turn that 3.5 into a 4 someday soon!
Although I have been working here for only a short time so far, I have already run into few surprises in Japanese hospitals. First of all, I'm really impressed at how hospital admission procedures in Japan are so computerized. Another thing I noticed was that after taking patients' blood, we use alcohol wipes on their skin instead of gauze or cotton balls, which are more common to use in other countries. It's a minor detail, but I thought it was interesting, or perhaps interestingly painful!
Before I came to Japan, I imagined it to be a country of discipline and extreme punctuality… but then, I visited Osaka and found out that my imagination wasn't exactly accurate. (laughs) What I mean to say is, you can't paint Japan with a broad brush. It's just like any other country, with many different types of people and different approaches to things.
While the best city in Japan to me will always be Kyoto, I still think that Tokyo is a fascinating place. One of my favorite areas in Tokyo is Odaiba. I live in a dormitory for international students there, and I enjoy being around that area because it's right on the ocean and full of greenery. I also like Shibuya, but for different reasons. It's an area filled with people who come from various backgrounds, whose "colors" mesh into a dynamic painting every time I visit.
Also, since coming to Japan, I have come to admire the Japanese concepts of miyabi and wabi-sabi. These concepts are difficult to fully explain in English, but they both imply an appreciation for the hidden beauty in things. I feel that knowing about these concepts has given me insight into Japanese culture and has enhanced my life here.
I just started researching here a few months ago, so I haven't thought too much about what I want to do after this yet. I would like to concentrate on the work that I have now and get used to a stable routine first. What I have in mind for later, though, is becoming either a clinician or a clinical researcher. If I decide to become a clinician, I would probably go to the US, Singapore or back to Lebanon, as becoming a doctor in Japan requires passing the Japanese Medical Examination, which is naturally in Japanese, and that would be a little hard for me to take. Another option is staying in Japan and continuing my studies as a clinical researcher.
As for the immediate future, I want to get more involved in extracurricular activities here at the University of Tokyo. When I was studying at Kyoto University, I was very active in the university community. I started projects and planned events for the university. Helping the university was something that I enjoyed doing, and I hope to do the same here.
That brings me to some advice I have for current students. I know you can get absorbed in studying and researching, but don't miss out on extracurriculars! They are an important part of your student life, and allow you to contribute to the university community in a direct way. What's more, I think that a lot of university resources, such as opportunities for grants, event promotion, and interdisciplinary projects, are underutilized by international students. I would like to encourage students to go out and find these opportunities. Just act, create, and live a little!
Walid is an avid cyclist. He bought his bike just one month after he arrived in Tokyo, and has been cycling through the city ever since. In fact, he says he has already explored every inch of the ward he lives in, Koto Ward, by bike! He also enjoys swimming, so he bikes out to places like Chiba and Yokohama to go swimming there. Other places he has been include Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea. On weekends, he typically travels around 60km to 80km on his bike. One recent journey he took was from his dormitory in Odaiba, Tokyo, to a hot spring five hours away in Saitama Prefecture. He's thinking about someday going on a four-day excursion with his bicycle all the way to Kyoto, a 1000km round trip!
One book that every psychiatrist must be knowledgeable about is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The latest edition of this book is called DSM-5, with the "5" denoting that it is the fifth edition. As psychiatrists follow criteria in the DSM-5 to diagnose patients, they need to know this massive book inside and out. And Walid is taking it one step further! On top of having a good knowledge of the English version of the DSM-5, he is studying the Japanese version, which is shown in this picture. Since the content is the same as the English version, he says that reading this book helps him become familiar with kanji and Japanese medical terminology. We wish him the best of luck in his studies!