The ASBH 9th Annual Meeting (October 18-21, 2007) of ASBH

Sunday, 21 October 2007 - 11:00 AM

Tuberculosis: Illness of Narrative in Modern Japanese Literature

Nobue Urushihara Urvil, MA, Institute for the Medical Humanities, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX, USA

Tuberculosis has been playing an intriguing role in history. In general assumptions, there are two contrasting images of tuberculosis. One is tuberculosis as a “modern” disease, an “inevitable” by-product of industrialization, and consequent urbanization, capitalist exploitation, pollution, and poverty. The other is a glamorous illness for geniuses, lovers, poets, artists, and musicians, often sentimentally portrayed in the Romantic literature, art, and music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In modern Japanese literature, tuberculosis was also a special subject. In addition to the romanticized images of the illness, what is characteristic to the construction of tuberculosis in Japanese literature is that it has been associated with the concept of "individual."

After Japan abolished its policy of seclusion in the late nineteenth century, it went through a rapid process of modernization, industrialization, urbanization, and militarization. During its almost overnight transformation from a feudalistic country into a modern nation, Japan had so many lives lost to tuberculosis that it was even called a "national disease" until after World War II.

Whereas TB was feared and abhorred as a fatal disease, tuberculosis in literature of the time was celebrated as a tool to conceive the interiority of modern person. Tuberculosis was an important theme in an enormous number of works of literature including novels, short stories, haiku poems, free-style poetry, and essays. Many writers were themselves suffering from TB and most of them died of it.

I want to take a look at specific literary works from the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century. Namiko: A Realistic Novel (1898) by Tokutomi Roka is one of the earliest Japanese novels that contributed to the romanticization of tuberculosis. “Novel” concepts introduced from the West, such as Christianity and women's liberation, helped enhance the popularity of this work. "At Kinosaki" (1917) by Shiga Naoya is a short story about the author's personal experience and contemplation of life and death when he was convalescing from tuberculosis. Shiga is reputed as a master of “the I-novel,” a genre of autobiographical fiction based on the incidents in the writers' lives. Hori Tatsuo's "The Wind Has Risen" (1934-38) is probably most associated by today's audience with the image of tuberculosis as an aesthetic illness. As a sanatorium narrative, Hori's work serves as a reminder of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain (1924). However, unlike the decadent, upper-class patients depicted in Mann's work, Hori's character, a Westernized intellectual, remains apart from the world and finds peace in his own sensibility and appreciation of tuberculosis.

I intend to discuss how these Japanese authors of different styles and thoughts explored ways to create individuality and reconstruct the relationship between the self and the exterior reality in modern Japan. I also want to note that these works helped shape the resonances of tuberculosis in Japanese culture.


See more of Triage, metaphors, and the public health
See more of Individual Presentations

See more of The ASBH 9th Annual Meeting (October 18-21, 2007)