Speaking the Language of Medicine: Egyptian Physician Osama Ibrahim
[2017.06.29] Read in: 日本語 | العربية | Русский |

Egyptian-born Osama Ibrahim came to Japan determined to earn his Japanese medical license and become a practicing ophthalmologist. To do this, however, he first had to overcome the language barrier by mastering Japanese. In this interview, he shares what brought him to Japan and the trials he faced in achieving his dream.

Osama Mohamed Aly Ibrahim

Osama Mohamed Aly IbrahimBorn in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1982. Graduated from Alexandria University, Faculty of Medicine, and became a licensed physician in Egypt. Came to Japan in 2007 and the following year entered the research program at Keiō University School of Medicine, where he earned a doctorate in 2011. Passed the Japanese National Medical Practitioners Qualifying Exam in 2016. Currently conducting his residency at the University of Tokyo Hospital.

Shooting for the Stars

Egyptian ophthalmologist Osama Mohamed Aly Ibrahim came to Japan with the goal of practicing medicine in the country. Although a licensed physician in his homeland, the Alexandria native traveled halfway around the globe in pursuit of leading-edge technology in his field. Achieving his dream, however, meant first surmounting the sizable language barrier.

OSAMA MOHAMED ALY IBRAHIM I had been interested in coming to Japan ever since I studied karate as a child and heard stories of the country from my instructor, but it wasn’t until university that I considered practicing medicine in Japan. I had never heard of a person from the Arabic-speaking world going to Japan to become a doctor, and the idea of becoming the first inspired me to try.

Osama during a visit to the Temple of Edfu in southern Egypt. (Photo courtesy of Osama Ibrahim.)

What started me down this path, though, was becoming friends with a Japanese medical student while on a short study abroad in Italy during my fourth year at school. We were part of a group of 100 students from 26 countries studying at the University of Palermo, and we hit it off right away. Later, I took him up on his invitation to visit Japan, and during my two weeks traveling around the country I scouted out schools and hospitals.

The trip changed my life. Up to that time I had been considering moving to the United States after becoming a doctor. But seeing firsthand the country’s high level of medical research and technology convinced me that I was better off going to Japan. I was also impressed by how safe the society was. In fact, the only drawback I could find was the language barrier.

It was a daunting hurdle, but I felt if I could master the language and get my Japanese medical license that new and enriching opportunities would present themselves. To be honest, though, I had no confidence that I would be successful. Still, the idea of treading new ground motivated me to try.

Laying the Groundwork

After earning his Egyptian medical license and completing a year-long residency, Osama came to Japan and entered the research program at Keiō University School of Medicine in 2008, focusing on eye diseases. He studied Japanese while working toward his doctorate, earning the latter in just three years compared to the standard four years. With guidance from his Japanese teachers he also passed the top level (N1) of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test.

OSAMA I knew I had to master Japanese in a hurry. However, the nearest schools offering the language were in Cairo. Faced with no option but to move, I figured that if I was going to relocate then I was better off going to Japan from the start. Once I arrived, though, it quickly became apparent just how steep a road lay in front of me. My university courses took up most of my time and I was only able to study Japanese about two hours a day. I enrolled in a Japanese language school at first, but it turned out not to be a very efficient use of my limited study time as I had to compete with other students for the instructor’s attention.

If I was going to learn Japanese quickly then I needed to use the language whenever and wherever possible. I learned about a program at city hall connecting students with volunteer Japanese teachers, which is how I met my instructor, Ms. Yoneda. Meeting her made all the difference. She was an expert teacher, and under her supervision my Japanese improved leaps and bounds.

Yoneda asserted early on that if I honestly hoped to be a doctor in Japan then I needed to study more intensely. We both had busy schedules, though, so we came up with the idea of having lessons using the online video chat service Skype. I really owe a debt of gratitude to her for her dedication as a teacher. She didn’t own a computer, but she went out and bought one and learned to use it just so we could keep our classes going.

The way we studied was she would assign a medical-related article from the newspaper each day and correct any mistakes I made as I read it. She was very strict, but there were many times that she had to look up specific terminology to be able to explain it, so in a way it was like we were learning together. Thanks to her I was eventually able to pass N1 of the JLPT.

Linguistic Pitfalls

After earning his doctorate, Osama did postgraduate research while preparing to take the Japanese National Medical Practitioners Qualifying Exam. Along with his Japanese studies, he spent close to a year preparing all the documents required for applicants of the test by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.

OSAMA Looking back, I can only laugh at my first attempt at the exam. It was a rigorous test, lasting three days and running from nine to five each day. Japanese, of course, was the biggest hurdle. It took so much time and effort to parse each question that I often had to race to finish answers, even the ones I was confident about. While it was challenging, at one point I had to chuckle to myself after running aground on the mundane term muzumuzu [meaning itchy]. Japanese is rich in such onomatopoetic words, but they can be completely unintelligible to foreign learners such as myself.

Needless to say, I bombed the test. But I take some solace in knowing that I was joined by a sizeable number of native Japanese who also failed. I stuck with it, though, and passed on my third attempt.

Bedside Manner

After earning his physician’s license, Osama chose to complete his mandatory two-year residency at the Tokyo University Hospital, one of Japan’s leading medical facilities.

OSAMA Now that I have a Japanese medical license people consider me first and foremost a physician. This means, however, that I have to take extra care with my Japanese. Previously colleagues would praise my imperfect language skills, whereas now I get derisive looks if the reading of a difficult kanji evades me. Still, Japan is a country that rewards good manners and hard work. I always take care to use polite Japanese with patients and assure they get the best care possible. As a result, patients have come to trust me and sometimes even ask for me by name, which is a real confidence builder. At the moment I’m fully focused on gaining experience and further improving my skills.

Osama with his colleagues Dr. Hoshi Kazuhiro (left) and Dr. Hara Chihiro.

My ultimate goal is to use what I learn in Japan to help people in the Middle East who are suffering from eye diseases. What I hope to do is to travel to different regions and spend about a week conducting surgeries and treating patients.

Enjoying the Ride

OSAMA Coming to Japan has been an amazing journey of discovery. Each day has been challenging but fun, and looking back I have no regrets about choosing to study here over the United States. I have never felt the object of bias, but instead have found people to be open and accepting. As long as you put your mind to whatever you’re doing, the sky’s the limit.

Japan has presented me with multiple opportunities outside of the medical field as well. As a student I earned money for tuition by working for NHK World, the overseas channel of the national broadcaster. I landed the job because I could speak Arabic and Japanese, and this led to me appearing on NHK’s Arabic language study program as well.

Learning Japanese was not easy, but mastering the language and reaching my other goals has shown me that the way to open the doors of opportunity is through hard work and perseverance.

(Based on an interview by Utsugi Satoshi and published in Japanese on May 19, 2017. Photos by Kodera Kei.)

  • [2017.06.29]
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