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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