chapter  9
16 Pages

Dr. Baelz’s Mongolian spot: German medicine, discourse of race in Meiji Japan, and the local response


East Asia did not escape the taint of scientific racism. From the 1860s it witnessed the arrival of Western scholars who subscribed to this approach and promulgated its tenets. The idea that humanity is broadly divided into large groups that inhabit different geographical habitats and are characterized by distinct corporeal and mental characteristics dates back to classical Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages.1 However, during the late eighteenth century and especially around the mid-nineteenth century, this idea gained an aura of scientific validity. It was used to justify territorial expansion and the subjugation of vast native populations. Leading the quest for measuring human diversity were the medical practitioners who filled the ranks of recently established ethnographic and anthropological societies. Quite a few of them ventured overseas to observe the Other in its own habitat. One of the most prominent Western scholars with a racial edge to anthropo-

logical and medical practice was the German physician Erwin Baelz (1849-1913), whose fin-de-siècle theories on the Japanese population’s composition, origins, and medical peculiarities are of special concern (Figure 9.1). These theories exerted a long-term impact not only on Westerners’ attitudes toward Japan but also on the way in which the Japanese themselves began to construe their own national identity and history. Baelz’s importance in shaping racial discourse in Japan notwithstanding, he represents a certain strain of European scholarship on Japan that reached a cul-de-sac by the late Meiji era. By then, Japan had become the first nation in the non-Western world to have capitalized upon anthropological research performed on its own population. By so doing it had begun to also dominate the racial discourse on its origins and composition. This academic achievement was not fortuitous. It reflected the spectacular rise and capacity of the indigenous academic and scientific community as well as the fields that the new Japanese state believed to be important. Questions of race were cardinal issues since they were related to national status

and affected Japan’s public image within and outside the country. Moreover, since contemporary Japan was coveting and building an empire of its own, the construction of a racial worldview had substantial implications on the treatment of colonial populations. By focusing on a seemingly trivial phenomenon-the passing appearance of a blue spot on a newborn’s body-this chapter will

discuss Baelz’s racial theories on the Japanese and the reactions it caused among Japanese scholars during a crucial period of scientific transition. Altogether, this chapter seeks to illuminate the distinctive, and apparently also unique, interaction between foreign and Japanese scientists in the construction of racial theories during the late-Meiji era and early stages of Japanese imperialism. Born near Stuttgart, there was very little in Baelz’s early biography that

could suggest his personal and professional destiny.2 Apart from his admission to medical school at Tübingen University, the most remarkable event in his early adulthood was the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), in which he served as a surgeon-major’s assistant. During this conflict he contracted near-fatal dysentery but managed to complete his studies at the University of Leipzig and began teaching there. Fluent in French and English and possessing a great deal of

Figure 9.1 Erwin Baelz: a bust at the University of Tokyo Source: Wikipedia Commons:

interest in traveling to foreign countries, he accepted-following a chance encounter with a Japanese patient-the offer of a professorship at the Imperial University of Tokyo’s School of Medicine. While the invitation was personal, it was part of a broader framework. By then, the German approach to science, as James Bartholomew has demonstrated, became a model for the way the Japanese state intended to organize its own scientific research in general, and medicine in particular.3