Across the Pacific

Haruko Akatsu has spent her career strengthening ties between medical schools in the United States and Japan.

During her medical school days at Brown University and residency at Stanford, Haruko Akatsu, MD, who was born, raised and educated in Japan, got to thinking about the differences between medical education in the two countries. “I was surprised to encounter so many different ways of educating the next generation,” Akatsu, a clinical associate professor of endocrinology, gerontology and metabolism, recalled thinking. “That was eye-opening for me.” 

She began to share and record her experiences in a Japanese medical journal and was soon approached by a publisher. Her collection of essays, entitled Medical Education in the United States: A Medical Student Journal, was released in 1995. To Akatsu’s surprise, the book was well received. Invitations, and another book deal, soon followed: “I started to be invited to so many different grand rounds and conferences in Japan to give talks. I think people were interested in knowing more about medical education in the United States, which was not very well known to the Japanese medical community at that time.”

Akatsu noted that while typical Japanese medical school curricula were more textbook- and lecture-based, American schools offered more opportunity for system-based and clinical application. She explained: “Generally, education in Japan is more dogmatic, and information is passed top-down from teachers to students. But in America, we encourage different viewpoints and opinions, and we encourage discussion. I think it’s great to see how we can learn from both of these perspectives.”

Though she trained and worked in the United States for the past 25 years, Akatsu’s strong ties to Japan are evident and have shaped the trajectory of her career. She’s sat on committees, organized education exchanges, and hosted training and faculty development workshops, including a Stanford faculty development workshop at Hiroshima University, where, she explained, “I would bring three colleagues from Stanford out to Japan to share their knowledge.”

Last summer, Akatsu took a sabbatical to develop curricula for a new medical school in Japan — the country’s first in roughly 35 years. “We submitted an innovative curriculum to the Ministry of Education.”

The new medical school, International University of Health and Welfare, aims to be a hub for Asian medical students and will train attendees to serve the global community, Akatsu said. “When the government allowed a new medical school to be established, the condition was that this new medical school will be ‘very different’ from any existing medical schools in Japan. This school will invite students from other Asian countries — like Vietnam or Mongolia — and classes will be taught mostly in English, which is unheard of in Japan.”

In August, Akatsu once again traveled the 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to accept a new role as dean for medical education at International University of Health and Welfare School of Medicine. It’s a natural fit for her, and she will oversee all aspects of education — from curriculum, to teaching, to student affairs. “There’s so much to learn,” she said of the opportunity. “It’s like a start-up in my mind; very exciting, but very challenging.”

Though she’s leaving the Stanford campus, Akatsu says she would like to bring the university’s innovative spirit along with her. “I’m truly grateful for the time I’ve had here. I’ll be bringing along the Stanford attitude and spirit, including entrepreneurship and innovation. That forward-thinking spirit — where you’re not afraid of failure and look for lessons in challenges — that’s what I will miss, and what I’ll carry with me.”