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Portrait of a scientific Shintōist: Akashi Hiroakira (1839–1910)

December 12, 2011

Medical history in Japan – by Daisuke Okumura

The story of the modernisation of Japanese medicine is normally told within the framework of the successful introduction of Western medicine from Germany. The prominent role in the ‘German connection’ was played by Tokyo, which became the new capital and the site of the central government in 1868. The new capital’s state-run medical school (which became the School of Medicine of the University of Tokyo) imported German academic medicine, which was characterised by scientific rigour and experimentation. Once imported into Tokyo, foreign medical knowledge was diffused to the rest of the country via medical schools modelled after the University of Tokyo. Although this historiographical paradigm contains some truth about the development of Japanese medicine, it does not allow historians to examine the rich and significant fusion of the medical cultures of the East and West that took place outside of academic medicine and particularly in cities other than Tokyo.

Kyoto, which had been the capital and a centre of learning for more than a millennium, provided an ideal ground for the mixing of indigenous ideas and Western ones. In 1868, when the Emperor left Kyoto for Tokyo (then known as Edo), citizens of Kyoto started to reinvigorate and modernise the old capital. Receiving a large subsidy from the government, Kyoto introduced various aspects of Western culture and promoted new industries, as well as strengthening old ones. Late 19th-century Kyoto quickly became a city where traditional cultures met the imported Western ones.

Akashi Hiroakira (1839–1910), a physician–polymath who was active in Kyoto in the late 19th century, exemplified the Kyoto-style modernisation. He was born in Kyoto in 1839 and lost his father at the age of four. His grandfather was a practitioner of Dutch-style medicine, and the young Akashi was fascinated by his grandfather’s medical books, apparatuses and drugs. Akashi studied Chinese medicine, Western medicine, Dutch language, physics, chemistry and civil engineering, as well as Chinese literature and Japanese poetry (waka). Later, Akashi was involved in the establishment of major landmarks of Western medicine in Kyoto and Osaka: the Kyoto Society of Medical Research (1865), Osaka Hospital (1869), Kyoto Chemical Research Center (1870) and the Kyoto Charity Hospital (1872).

Akashi was not, however, a slavish follower of Western medicine. Particularly interesting is his unique view of nature. In his book Treatise on Lightning Conductor (1873), Akashi regarded electricity as the power of creation and the basic principle in the universe. His idea of electricity was strongly influenced by the indigenous religion of Shintō. Akashi organised the Imperial Shintō Church in 1887 and in the next year published a book of devotions, Zôka-kyô (‘Book of the Creation’), which developed the idea of positive and negative electricity. The book argued that the power of Amenominakanushi-Ôkami, the Creator, is divisible into kushi-mitama (curious soul) and saki-mitama (happy soul). Kushi-mitama is the spirit of gods, which penetrates all things, and saki- mitama is the power by which all things grow up and metamorphose. Both of the two mitama (souls) have meriki (negative power) and kariki (positive power). The prefix ‘me-’ means ‘minus’, ‘ka-’ means ‘plus’, and the root, ‘riki’, means ‘power’ in Japanese. If kariki and meriki are in balance, all things are in harmony; when the balance is lost, all things are in conflict.

This natural philosophical theory seems to have double layers of meaning: it could be regarded as the expression of Shintōism and the concept of yin and yang (negative and positive) in Chinese philosophy. At the same time, if we remember Akashi’s emphasis on electricity as the basic principle of the world, the theory also expresses the concept of electricity, which was transplanted into the basis of the Shintōist cosmology. Akashi’s medical theory and practice seem to have incorporated a mixture of Shintōism and the philosophy of electricity. Some fragments from his unpublished work, The Secret of Hypnotism (written around 1896), give us clues about his medical theory and practice. Akashi was interested in ‘electrical current in the body’ and how ‘the abnormal electrical current produces diseases’.

This important figure in the Westernisation of medicine in Kyoto was thus much more complex than he appeared on the surface: he blended Western scientific ideas and indigenous religious-philosophical ideas and applied the theory to his medical practice. Far from the ‘clean’ transition to German academic medicine symbolised by the Medical University of Tokyo, Akashi exemplified the cross-fertilisation and negotiation of science, religion and philosophy that was shared by many prominent doctors in late 19th-century Japan. Indeed, the pattern seen in Akashi’s work was similar to Europe’s experience of the interaction of science, medicine, religion and culture, which has been uncovered by historians of science in the past couple of decades.

Japan in the late 19th century was not just a student of Western civilisation and German medicine: like many other non-Western countries, it integrated imported science and medicine into its existing cultural framework of religion and philosophy. Indeed, this was the experience of many European countries in the early modern period. Akashi and many other doctors in 19th-century Japan thus represented the complex circulation of science, religion, philosophy and culture that characterised the world in the modern period.

Daisuke Okumura is a PhD student in cultural history at Keio University and a Research Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. This work was supported by Grant-in-Aid for JSPS Fellows (10J05482).

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