Beriberi in Modern Japan

Beriberi in Modern Japan

The Making of a National Disease

Alexander R. Bay

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The history of the medical and scientific debate about the etiology of the disease as it played out between diet theorists and contagionists from 1880 to 1940.
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 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.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Medicine, Power, and the Rhetoric of Empire
The Geography of Affliction: Beriberi in Edo and Tokyo
Putting the Laboratory at the Center
Beriberi: Disease of Imperial Culture
Empire and the Making of a National Disease
The Science of Vitamins and the Construction of Ignorance
The Rice Germ Debate: Total Mobilization and the Science of Vitamins in the 1930s


Beriberi in Modern Japan is the first comprehensive historical monograph that focuses solely on beriberi in Japan in the English language. It makes a significant contribution to Japanese history, the history of imperialism, and the history of medicine. It is a conceptually sophisticated work that grapples with a complex topic in an intelligent and convincing manner. JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE AND ALLIED SCIENCES

Bay is to be commended for bringing this important episode in Japanese medical history to an English-reading audience. This book will surely find a readership both within and outside Japanese studies amid growing interest in both food culture and medical history, and it should provoke lively conversations about the methods and aims of both these fields. MONUMENTA NIPPONICA

Beriberi in Modern Japan is indeed an inspiring and well-organised monograph. The author has done an excellent job linking the aetiological argument with Japanese state-building in the modern period. MEDICAL HISTORY

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