chapter  10
11 Pages

When precision obscures: disease categories related to cholera during the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895)


In the nineteenth century Japanese physicians embraced a dizzying array of terms to describe cholera. These include: mikka kokori, kaku-ran, Asiatic cholera, cholera and gastro-intestinal catarrh. The changes in how the Japanese medical field conceptualized the disease reflected a change in both broader understandings of the illness within the context of advances in medicine and Japan’s understanding of its place in the nineteenth century world. In particular, the Japanese medical community perceived cholera as an external illness consistently associated with the Asian continent. This is not surprising considering cholera’s origins in India’s Ganges Delta region. What is surprising are the shifting definitions of cholera that created disease categories drawing distinctions between Japan and Asia, an effort at precision in classification and naming that simultaneously obfuscated the epidemiological realities of the disease. This confounding of cultural-geographical and medical concerns about

cholera are well illustrated by how the Japanese army medical bureau, an organization that embracedWestern scientific medicine, classified cases of cholera during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the medical and social consequences of those disease classifications. Here scientific medicine refers to the type of medicine that emerged in the nineteenth century in hospitals, universities, and laboratories of Western Europe, which sought to understand the origins of infectious illnesses through the application of rational methods and protocols designed to demonstrate a causal relationship between a specific microbial pathogen and a particular disease. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Japanese envisioned Germany as the world leader in medicine and German instructors came to Japan to teach medicine in the army and universities, while the Japanese and Japanese universities sent their best and brightest students to study in German universities. In the 1870s and 1880s, when German researcher Robert Koch, through extensive field work and laboratory testing, isolated the microbial pathogens responsible for anthrax, tuberculosis, and cholera and demonstrated the cause and effect relationship between a specific disease and a single microbe, he confirmed the import of germ theory.1