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Going where very few have gone before

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-06-13

Extreme cold, silence, and isolation are some of the things that Shintaro Ishigaki had to cope with for over one year. The Okinawan had just returned from Antarctica, a place of solid ice that most of us will never have the chance to visit. The 55 year old Ishigaki was part of the "Japan Antarctic Research Expedition", at Japan's base camp "Showa" as a radio operator. He is also one of the very few people from Okinawa to have ever stepped foot on one of the most isolated parts of our planet.

The minute Ishigaki started to explain about his unique experience, a look of wonderment filled his eyes. It was obvious that his words could only touch upon the feelings he encountered at one of the last great frontiers. "The first thing I noticed were the immense icebergs. They were huge. On land everything was so vast, and white with snow as far as the eye could see. When you stepped outside, there was never any noise, except for the sound of your footsteps on the snow," explained Ishigaki. His stay on the southern most part of our globe started on December 20 of 1996, and lasted until his departure on February 1 of 1998.

The telecommunications expert is no stranger to challenges and far away places. He was born in Iriomote Island, where he grew up as a child. His determination was first put to the test after graduating Junior High School. "I failed the entrance exam for High School the first time," remembered Ishigaki. He studied harder, and passed the test to enter Okinawa Suisan High School in Naha, where he graduated in 1963. It was in high school that Ishigaki received his first contact with radio communication. That experience lead to a job with the "Ryukyu Kai Shipping Corporation", where Ishigaki worked as a radio operator on board cargo ships. His profession took him to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, and Borneo. At a time when most Okinawans could not afford to leave the island, Ishigaki had already seen many countries around the Asia and the Pacific regions. His travels gave him his first taste for adventure, and a desire to pursue his career.

After working several years mostly out at sea, Ishigaki landed a job with NTT here on Okinawa doing the same type of work. His dedication to his field and towards increasing his knowledge, prompted him to enter Ryukyu University's Electrical Engineering program at Tanki University in 1981. At the time, Ishigaki was 39 years old, but his age did not stop his desire to learn. Upon graduating, Ishigaki had earned himself a degree and also 1st class licenses in both radio operation and repair. His decision to go back to school is something very seldom done in Japan, especially at 39 years of age.

Ishigaki's chance to go to Antarctica came through some information received by NTT from the Ministry of Education. The "Japan Antarctic Research Expedition" was looking for applicants for a radio control operator, and Ishigaki leaped at the opportunity. However, he was denied the position for seven straight years. Again not willing to give up, Ishigaki was finally accepted after eight years of applying for the job. He was chosen out of a field of experts from all over the country, and he soon found himself aboard the ice-breaker "Shirase", on his way to the cold Arctic Ocean.

The work at the "Showa" base camp was hard and long. Ishigaki's job was crucial to the safety of his expedition team. "I supported the scientists doing research there by keeping radio contact. We also had communication with other stations and a small Cesna aircraft used for research work," he explained. "In the winter it would get to minus 37 degrees centigrade. The cold was always a danger for all of us. Whenever we went outside, we always traveled with a partner, or in groups of three. We always had to check each other for early signs of frost bite or hypothermia. When there was a blizzard you couldn't go outside at all. The snow would become so blinding, you could barely see your hand in front of you." Ishigaki's job also included maintenance of all the equipment, which frequently put him outside to check on the camp's communication system.

Despite the harsh weather and long hours, Ishigaki and his co-workers were able to find time to also enjoy the awesome beauty of their new home. "The nature of Antarctica is beautiful, and so different from anywhere else I have ever seen. The landscape is incredible. In some places the ice is about 4,000 meters thick," said Ishigaki. Exploring on his free time with other members from the camp, Ishigaki was also able to see up close penguins, seals, and whales. He also explained that leisure activities were very important to the morale of Camp Showa. " One of the most difficult things was dealing with personal relations. We had to work together under stressful circumstances, so being able to get away from work was very important to us. We also did some fishing, played softball, and soccer." The harsh winter was broken up by small mid-winter celebrations by all the camps. Messages were received by world leaders, including Bill Clinton, and greetings went out from all the different Nations doing research on the continent.

Now back in his native country, Ishigaki has had some time to reflect upon his unique experience. He hopes to be able to return to Antarctica again someday, but also has future plans to visit other places around the globe. Ishigaki also mentioned his concern about the increasing size of the hole in the O-Zone over Antarctica, and the fragility of the environment there.

Ishigaki is an inspiration for all of us. He is also an example of both individual determination, and on a larger scale, a part of peaceful and global cooperation for mankind.

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