Whitewashing History: Osaka’s Tanabe Mitsubishi Pharma Museum

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, Associate Professor of History at University of Colorado Boulder and author of the books Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History and Into the Field: Human Scientists of Transwar JapanHere she continues her fascinating museum reviews with an examination of a museum in Osaka from her recent trip to Japan.

The Tanabe Mitsubishi Pharma Historical Museum (Kusuri no Doshōmachi Shiryōkan) is located in Osaka, a half-hour ramble from the main train station. It lies in the heart of the city’s traditional merchant quarter (still dotted with preserved architecture dating to the late nineteenth century). The museum occupies the second floor of the Tanabe Mitsubishi Pharma Company headquarters. It is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. on all weekdays excluding holidays. Advance online reservations are required for entry. Admission is free, the staff is welcoming and helpful, and all films, exhibits, and interactive materials are bilingual. At the time of my visit (around 2 p.m. on a Wednesday in early January), I was the only guest.  

As the museum narrates, Tanabe Mitsubishi Pharma is both a new and an old entity. The company acquired its current form in 2007 as the result of a merger. However, its origins date back to 1604, when Osaka-based merchant Tanabe Gohei received a permit from the Tokugawa shogun (then ruler of Japan) to peddle medicines. In 1678, his grandson opened the family’s first shop (Tanabeya) and began selling medicinal products imported from the Philippines. At the time, Japan was under a strict policy of seclusion, and Tanabe’s foray into international commerce must have required considerable negotiations. (Unfortunately, the process by which he obtained his permit is not elucidated.) Tanabeya truly thrived during the Meiji period (1868-1912), when, in advance of most competitors, it began providing Western medicines in addition to traditional Sinic treatments. Within a short while, the former dominated sales. Another major period of growth took place during World War I, when Germany, then the global leader in developing and manufacturing pharmaceuticals, became unable to export its products. Local concerns including Tanabeya stepped into the breach and greatly expanded their market share.

Within the museum, much of the exhibition space is devoted to the Tokugawa- and Meiji-era history of the company. Original documents on display include licensing paperwork and account books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Also of note are a number of remarkable artifacts, including an ointment mixing bowl about the size of a bathtub and the paper lantern that illuminated the storefront from the 1600s through the 1930s. The centerpiece of the main hall is a reproduction of the Tanabeya storefront as it appeared at the end of the Meiji period. 

 

(Above L: Ointment mixing bowl (late Meiji period), and R: Tanabeya shop lantern, 1600s-1930s)

The very recent past of the company is also discussed, with a focus on pharmaceutical research and development. To encourage young students to pursue scientific careers, the museum delves into the process by which drugs are discovered, vetted, and launched into the marketplace. Several interactive terminals allow visitors to test their knowledge of medicine and the human body. The challenging quizzes yield entertaining trivia; for example, I learned that, if placed end to end, the capillaries of the human body would extend 100,000 kilometers (about 60,000 miles). 

Screenshot 2020-07-09 at 8.21.11 AM

Quiz terminal

In contrast to the distant and recent past, the museum’s coverage of the twentieth century is highly selective. A few reproductions of 1920s and 1930s advertisements evoke Tanabe Mitsubishi’s age-old marketing strategy of hiring attractive female models. A display case of memorabilia recalls the athletic accomplishments of the fourteenth Tanabe heir, who served as chairman of a regional soccer association and competed in the sport in the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Information is provided about certain scientific triumphs, including the development of various cardiovascular health agents (long a company focus). However, not unlike Tokyo’s Daiichi Sankyō Pharmaceutical Museum (reviewed here), the Tanabe Mitsubishi Pharma Historical Museum completely ignores less savory episodes in the company’s past. A chronology of main events in its history, occupying a full wall, misleads the visitor into believing that its activities during World War II were limited to benign changes in name and location. Far from it—research on the history of drugs in Japan has produced overwhelming evidence of the pharmaceutical industry’s participation in narcotics production and trafficking in imperial territories in East and Southeast Asia. However, the exhibition elides this history with the brief (positive) comment, “We also actively expanded our overseas business especially in Asia.” It further alludes to the destruction of the company headquarters in a 1942 air raid, implying its status as a victim of the war.

The museum also fails to present any information on infamous incidents from Mitsubishi Tanabe’s postwar past. In 1950 the company established the Green Cross, Japan’s first commercial blood bank. Founders included known veterans of Japan’s notorious Kwantung Army Unit 731, which conducted “medical” experiments on human subjects in northeast China during the 1930s and early 1940s. Around three thousand people died amid terrible suffering as a result of these experiments, which are sometimes compared to those carried out by Josef Mengele and his henchmen in Nazi concentration camps. In the late 1980s, the Green Cross was found to have knowingly distributed blood products contaminated with HIV, leading to the infection of about three thousand people. The company was ultimately ordered to pay damages in court. None of this history is covered by the museum. 

Despite the size and robustness of the pharmaceutical industry in Japan, the only museums devoted to its history are currently maintained by individual companies. Both the Daiichi Sankyō Pharmaceutical Museum and the Tanabe Mitsubishi Pharma Historical Museum illustrate the dangers of this approach. Capitalizing on the credibility of the exhibition format, they provide dangerous misinformation—one might say “false news”—to the visiting public.