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Beriberi in Modern Japan

Beriberi in Modern Japan: The Making of a National Disease

Alexander R. Bay
Volume: 24
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Beriberi in Modern Japan
    Book Description:

    In modern Japan, beriberi (or thiamin deficiency) became a public health problem that cut across all social boundaries, afflicting even the Meiji Emperor. During an age of empire building for the Japanese nation, incidence rates in the military ranged from 30 percent in peacetime to 90 percent during war. Doctors and public health officials called beriberi a 'national disease' because it festered within the bodies of the people and threatened the health of the empire. Nevertheless, they could not agree over what caused the disease, attributing it to a diet deficiency or a microbe. In 'The Beriberi in Modern Japan', Alexander R. Bay examines the debates over the etiology of this 'national disease' during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Etiological consensus came after World War I, but the struggle at the national level to direct beriberi prevention continued, peaking during wartime mobilization. War served as the context within which scientific knowledge of beriberi and its prevention was made. The story of beriberi research is not simply about the march toward the inevitable discovery of "the beriberi vitamin," but rather the history of the role of medicine in state-making and empire-building in modern Japan. Alexander Bay is assistant professor of history at Chapman University.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-789-6
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: Medicine, Power, and the Rhetoric of Empire
    (pp. 1-10)

    During the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), Superior Private Satō Ikutarō, a farmer who hailed from Miyazaki Prefecture, developed beriberi. He was experiencing swelling in his legs and an accelerated heartbeat. After receiving an examination on January 31, 1905, he was ordered to report to the Sixth Division’s Fourth Field Hospital on February 8. By the time Satō entered the hospital, his condition had deteriorated. His face was swollen and pale, and he complained of total body fatigue. His pulse was 120 with a weak heartbeat. Enlarged and dry, Satō’s tongue was covered in a yellowish brown slime. His stomach was...

  6. Chapter One The Geography of Affliction: Beriberi in Edo and Tokyo
    (pp. 11-29)

    In 1549, the priests of Kyoto’s Uzumasa Kōryūji petitioned the gods during the Ox Festival to relieve their suffering that was caused by a myriad of ailments such as colic, sore throats, coughing, respiratory congestion, carbuncles, boils, tumors, chapped and cracked skin, runny noses, diarrhea and bloody stools, morning sickness, and swollen testicles.¹ Medieval sources like the Uzumasa Kōryūji petition and the Yamai no sōshi (Scrolls of affliction) suggest that illness, based on internal imbalances, was understood as a manifestation of outward symptoms affecting certain body parts.² By the middle of the Edo period, disease had been reordered, afflicting not...

  7. Chapter Two Putting the Laboratory at the Center
    (pp. 30-51)

    When the Meiji Emperor (r. 1868–1912), who had suffered several bouts of beriberi as a young man, fell ill with the disease again in May 1878, the Minister of the Right Iwakura Tomomi and Home Minister Itō Hirobumi met with Tōta Chōan (1819–89), a traditional medicine doctor and noted beriberi expert, to talk about his methods of treatment.¹ Tōta advocated a provocative theory: white rice was the cause. His treatment centered on eating barley and red beans. In other words, he regarded the affliction as caused by diet, and cured it with a dietary regimen that dated back...

  8. Chapter Three Beriberi: Disease of Imperial Culture
    (pp. 52-86)

    In a 1905 memoir, Surgeon General Ishiguro Tadanori recounts a visit to the famous traditional medicine doctor Tōta Chōan at his home, where he found ten army noncommissioned officers undergoing treatment for their beriberi. Shocked, and no doubt embarrassed, since the army’s official stance barred kanpō, he immediately ordered them back to their barracks. Because the army minister Yamagata Aritomo thought highly of Western science, and believed the medical corps chiefs about beriberi, Ishiguro presumed that they had quashed the kanpō theory and the army was therefore free of Oriental medicine. “This was not the case,” he wrote; “kanpō was...

  9. Chapter Four Empire and the Making of a National Disease
    (pp. 87-105)

    “Beriberi research,” wrote an anonymous doctor in 1907, “must be the enterprise of the nation,” because “as imperial subjects,” and “as great citizens of the empire,” disease prevention was a duty for all Japanese.¹ This sentiment represented the new importance assigned to controlling beriberi. As a nation of modern citizens under the Meiji Emperor and at the center of a wider empire, Japan had to mobilize all its strength to battle beriberi—a problem increasingly highlighted as a national disease (kokuminbyō).

    Scholars agree that the Russo-Japanese War and especially Japan’s victory over a Western power consolidated a new sense of...

  10. Chapter Five The Science of Vitamins and the Construction of Ignorance
    (pp. 106-127)

    In 1918, the executive members of the Internal Medicine Association of Japan, all of whom were Tokyo Imperial University professors, came under fire when a member of their own Faculty of Medicine, Tazawa Ryōji (1883–1967), was accused of allowing ideological bias to skew the research findings he presented. When working in the laboratory of Professor Hayashi Haruo, Tazawa had argued, in line with the thinking of the professor, that rice bran extract had no effect on those suffering from beriberi. But upon taking a position in the lab supervised by Irisawa Tatsukichi (1865–1938), Tazawa suddenly declared that rice...

  11. Chapter Six The Rice Germ Debate: Total Mobilization and the Science of Vitamins in the 1930s
    (pp. 128-151)

    At the 1925 Far Eastern Association of Tropical Medicine meeting in Tokyo, the Special Beriberi Committee discussed the possibility of enacting regionwide legislation to regulate rice milling as a means of preventing that disease. Bureau of Public Health technocrat Takano Rokurō, citing several difficulties, argued that it was not feasible to carry out such regulation in Japan.¹ By 1939, the situation had changed. Takano, as the chief of the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s (Kōseishō) Department of Public Health and Prevention (Yobō eiseikyokuchō), was involved in a movement to standardize milling to ensure that people received enough vitamin B1.Shimazono Junjirō...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 152-158)

    Writing to a popular audience in 1941 about eliminating national diseases during a time of total war, Takano Rokurō called on the people to give up their “white rice-ism,” because as a food, it was not “the complete package.”¹ Adding mixed grains while increasing the amount of vegetables and seafood would solve Japan’s beriberi problem. The solution, Takano recognized, was not easy since white rice eaters were prone to this disease. The advent of machine milling allowed beriberi to spread throughout rural and urban populations, striking those living in communal settings where nutrition is not given much attention, such as...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 159-204)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-226)
  15. Index
    (pp. 227-230)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-231)