The Power of Disease: Medical Hierarchies in East Asia from the Meiji Period through World War II

AHA Session 62
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 203 (Hynes Convention Center)
James Bartholomew, Ohio State University

Session Abstract

The Power of Disease: Medical Hierarchies in East Asia from the Meiji period through World War II The three papers in this session explore cultural conflicts and political hierarchies in medical encounters in East Asia from the Meiji period (1868-1912) through World War II (1937-45). These encounters illustrate that medicine is a key site of culturally specific beliefs about the sacred. Divergent medical practices thus often lead to cultural friction. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, beliefs about medical superiority were also used to reify political superiority. In East Asia, Japan was the first nation to align itself with Western imperialist powers and use this association to justify its own imperialism on the Asian mainland. Roberto Padilla illustrates that the malleable use of disease categories related to cholera by Japanese physicians reinforced the notion that the Asian continent was a dangerous epidemiological space. Throughout this process the Japanese medical community associated itself with Western medicine—beginning with the Dutch—and simultaneously distanced itself from other Asians and Asian medical practices. The Meiji Restoration had resulted in part from the 1853 arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry, who made several demands on Japan and whose visit demonstrated that Japan could not ignore the power of imperialist nations in the West. The decision of the Meiji oligarchs, other officials, and many intellectuals to modernize by adopting Western policies and procedures while rejecting practices previously imported from the Asian mainland initiated the creation of Japanese imperialism in Asia that lasted nearly a century. In its association with Western powers, Japan mobilized nearly 70,000 soldiers to Siberia as part of the Allied support of White Russians against the Red Army in the Bolshevik Revolution (known in Japan as the Siberian Intervention). Sumiko Otsubo's paper examines a medical history of the Siberian Intervention compiled by the Japanese army in order to illustrate that mobilization was a key source of disease transmission to the interior. Otsubo thereby challenges the theory that Spanish influenza spread to eastern Eurasia largely via its eastern ports while limited population mobility kept the interior untouched. World War II—called the Anti-Japanese War in China—caused the spread of disease as millions of refugees fled the war zone on the eastern seacoast and moved into the interior where seasonal epidemics killed far more refugees from outside provinces as they did locals. Nicole Barnes analyzes cultural conflicts in China's wartime capital of Chongqing that resulted largely from the self-proclaimed superiority of Western biomedicine over local medical practices and native resistance to biomedicine. Barnes relates these conflicts to divergent beliefs about what is sacred in medicine and the body, and the way these beliefs shaped interpersonal relations during cross-cultural public health projects. World War II marked the end of Japanese imperialism as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 brought the U.S.—Japan's ultimate vanquisher—into the war. This panel covers the full range of Western and Japanese imperialisms in East Asia as illustrated through medical encounters.

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