From Madness to Medicine in Japanese Culture

University of Pittsburgh September 28-29, 2017

University Club, Gold Room

Sponsored by the Toshiba International Foundation, Asian Studies Center and the Japan Iron and Steel Federation and Mitsubishi Endowments at the University of Pittsburgh

“From Madness to Medicine in Japanese Culture”

The academic conference is interested in contextualizing ideas about madness and mental health in the fields of literature and art as well as anthropology and medicine, particularly the history of medicine. Our goal is to more clearly articulate what the boundaries of “health” and “illness” are and how those definitions have fluctuated through Japan’s experience of modernity and post-modernity.

“Mental illness” and “mental health” have been preoccupations of modern societies the world over as individuals, communities, and nations seek to describe these terms. Mental healthcare professionals have sought to define, diagnose, and treat “mental illness.” Although medicine has made revolutionary discoveries related to the physiological conditions linked to a variety of behavioral problems in communities and to psychological suffering, the biomedicalization of “mental health” and “mental illness” also has the serious consequence of removing lived experience from its cultural and historical contexts, and rendering “mental illness” as universal reified objective fact. Such universalization has the pernicious effect of ignoring the culturally construed interpretations of those afflicted with mental anguish.

The biomedicalization of mental illness has too often led to a failure to recognize how cultural and linguistic contexts influence the conceptualization and treatment of mental illness. Studies in the history of medicine and in medical anthropology elucidate the complex role culture and particular social circumstances play in the interpretation of mental experiences. They also challenge a variety of ideas assumed to be objectively true; among these are ideas about classificatory schemes used to diagnose mental conditions as scientific rather than cultural constructions, the universality of definitions of illness, and where the boundary between wellness and illness lies in any given context.

In the modern history of Japan, for example, we find in the early 20th century physicians commonly diagnosing patients as having neurasthenia (shinkei suijaku 神経衰弱) while rarely giving a diagnosis of depression (utsubyō 鬱病). In the early 21st century, however, we find the exact opposite: Japanese patients are now rarely diagnosed with neurasthenia while commonly being diagnosed with depression.

This symposium brings together a group of scholars from across the disciplines of anthropology, film, history, literature, the performing arts, and religious studies to interrogate the meanings of mental illness as they have been defined and transformed throughout Japanese history. Our intention is to bring intensive scrutiny to the particular cultural case of Japan. We begin with the premise that mental illnesses are in part cultural constructs, ones that have been the subject of interest and concern from earliest times. By engaging scholars across disciplines, we hope to identify places where disciplinary boundaries often limit our understanding of key concepts used to characterize behavioral anomalies, concepts like madness (kyōki 狂気), insanity (kichigai 気違い) mental illness (seishinbyō 精神病), and mental disability (seishin shōgai 精神障害). Further, we look not simply at the contemporary moment, but the historical layers that have contributed to Japanese descriptions of mental health, layers which inherently underpin and complicate modern terminologies, nosologies, and medical practices. We are interested in tracing how ideas about mental health emerged and were described, as well has how they influenced treatments throughout Japanese history. Some of the questions we explore are as follows: How have the Japanese defined and treated those whose mental states are not “healthy”? How have Japan’s interactions with other cultures and other cultural models affected definitions of mental health and illness? How can we see Japan’s historical experience with “mental health” as a touchstone in understanding the vital culturally specific dimensions to biological models of mental health and illness so universally prevalent today? How is globalizing biomedical ideas adapted and interpreted in distinctive ways in Japan?

To answer these questions, we will hold a two-day symposium, which will include 12 to 14 presentations by scholars of Japan working in a variety of fields.