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.

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Workshop Report: Drugs and the Politics of Consumption in Japan

Editor’s Note: This workshop report is from Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who recently traveled to Switzerland for the event.

A workshop entitled “Drugs and the Politics of Consumption in Japan” was held at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, from Aug. 22-24, 2019. It was organized by Dr. Judith Vitale with the help of Ulrich Brandenburg of the host institution. The workshop was impressively multinational, bringing together speakers representing universities from six countries and three continents. 

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Presenting Terada Shin: The Life History of a Female Drug User in Prewar Japan

Editor’s Note: Today, Points features a guest post by Miriam Kingsberg, an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History. (University of California Press, 2013). You can read the Points interview about the book here).

For historians of drugs, user perspectives are often frustratingly difficult to capture. Narcotics consumers generally leave behind few records in their own voice, forcing scholars to rely on the (frequently biased) perceptions of those who come into contact with them: law enforcement, doctors, social scientists, policymakers, etc. In the course of my research on narcotics in Japan and its empire from the 1850s through the 1950s, each of these groups provided critical information. My search for user-authored narratives, however, proved fruitless until virtually the last moment. In 2011, as I was preparing the penultimate draft of my book manuscript, I learned that a collection of documents, formerly inaccessible to scholars due to their poor condition, had been digitized and made available by the National Diet Library in Tokyo. To my delight, I found materials on the Drug Addiction Relief Association [Mayaku Kyūgokai], founded in 1933 as Japan’s first domestic facility for treating narcotics dependence. These sources not only enhanced my understanding of the history of addiction medicine, but also included about twenty life stories by patients, as recorded by doctors at the clinic in the mid-1930s.

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Terada Shin (right) with Y. Masa (a fellow patient at the Narcotic Addiction Relief Association)

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