Medical anthropology


Medical anthropology in Japan emerged during the 1980s under the strong influence of psychiatry and the interpretive approach (Ohnuki-Tierney 1988, Namihira 1990, etc). It has been developing in a close relation to non-Japanese anthropological interest in contemporary Japanese medicine, in which the diversity of biomedicine has always been a central topic. As a result of these similar fields of interest, since the 1990s many medical anthropologists started to use themes and concepts flourishing in STS. These sporadic studies have revolved around topics such as the gendered constitution of medicine—especially reproductive technologies (Lock 1993, Tsuge 1999), the role of local communities in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases (Ikeda 1992, Shirakawa 2001), the cultural and institutional shaping of brain death and organ transplant (Lock 2002, Yamazaki 2015, Shimazono 2012), the increasing presence of patient activism in chronic conditions (Ushiyama 2015, Tanabe 2008, Kitanaka 2012), and the relationship between bench and bedside (Fukushima 2005, 2010, Suzuki 2018, Tsuge 2007), to mention just a few that generated multiple alliances across STS and medical anthropology during the past three decades.

Margaret Lock’s comparative work, especially on menopause and brain death, and her progressive involvement in and contributions to STS have been an important impetus. Japanese researchers working in developmental contexts, on the other hand, were responding to a growing need for expertise on cultural difference in health-related behaviours. The ethnographic exploration of the multiple worlds of medicine in and out of the clinic has been influenced by Actor-Network Theory and especially the work of Annemarie Mol, whose The Body Multiple has been translated to Japanese (as a part of this series; for an English version of the foreword, see this page)  

Among the important hubs of STS-related medical anthropology are Keio University with a strong historical orientation, and Osaka University, where medical anthropologists are part of the Science, Technology and Culture Unit at the School of Human Sciences.

In the past decade, two special issues on medical science and technology have been published in the official journal of the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology, Bunkajinruigaku (see these and other special issues here). “The Body Hybrid” (2011, edited by Goro Yamazaki) is a collection of papers investigating the ways medical innovations enter human worlds through transforming embodied experiences. The second, “Anthropologies of Pharmaceutical Practice” (2017, edited by Yosuke Shimazono, Makoto Nishi and Akinori Hamada) focuses on medicinal drugs to show how they mediate social, political and scientific realms. The papers published in this special issue in Japanese were rewritten and further developed in English for an international workshop in Kyoto in February 2018 and an open panel at the IUAES meeting in July of the same year, both titled “Vital Experiments: Living (and Dying) with Pharmaceuticals after the Human.”


Fukushima Masato  福島 真人. 2005. 「制度の中の生(Bios)」『現代人類学のプラクシス:科学技術時代をみる視座』山下晋司・福島真人(編)103–106. 有斐閣 (Life Inside the System (Bios).  In Anthropology in The Age of Science and Technology. Masato Fukushima & Shinji Yamashita, eds. Pp. 103–106. Tokyo: Yuhikaku Publishing).

Fukushima Masato  福島 真人.  2010. 『学習の生態学 ―リスク・実験・高信頼性』東京大学出版会 (Ecology of Learning: Risk, Experiment, High Reliability. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press). 

Ikeda Mitsuho 池田 光穂. 2001.『実践の医療人類学: 中央アメリカ・ヘルスケアシステムにおける医療の地政学的展開』世界思想社. (Medical Anthropology of Practice: The geopolitical turn of medicine in Central American healthcare systems; in Japanese). Kyoto: Sekaishiso.

Kitanaka, Junko. 2012. Depression in Japan: Psychiatric Cures for a Society in Distress. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Lock, Margaret M. 1993. Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lock, Margaret M. 2002. Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death. California Series in Public Anthropology ; . Berkeley; London: University of California Press.

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Science and Cultural Theory. Durham: Duke University Press.

Namihira Emiko (ed.) 波平恵美子(編). 1990. 『病むことの文化―医療人類学のフロンティア』海鳴社 (The Culture of Illness: Frontiers of Medical Anthropology. Tokyo: Kameisha; in Japanese).

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1984. Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan: An Anthropological View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shimazono Yosuke, Nishi Makoto, Hamada Akinori (eds.) 島薗洋介・西真如・浜田明範編. 2011. 「薬剤の人類学──医薬化する世界の民族誌」("Anthropology of Pharmaceutical Practice,” Special Issue of Japanese Journal of Cultural Anthropology) 81(4).

Shirakawa Chihiro 白川 千尋. 2001.『カストム・メレシン―オセアニア民間医療の人類学的研究』風響社 (Kasutomu Mereshin: An Anthropological Study of Traditional Medicine in Oceania. Tokyo: Fukyo; in Japanese).

Suzuki Wakana. 2018. Ecology of Cells: An Ethnography of IPS Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine. PhD Thesis. Osaka University.

Tanabe Shigeharu 田辺 繁治. 2008.『ケアのコミュニティ: 北タイのエイズ自助グループが切り開くもの』岩波書店 (Communities of Care: The Frontiers of AIDS Advocacy in Northern Thailand. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten). 

Tsuge Azumi 柘植 あづみ. 1999.『文化としての生殖技術: 不妊治療にたずさわる医師の語り』松籟社 (Reproductive Technology as Culture: Listening to Infertility Physicians. Kyoto: Shoraisha; in Japanese).

Tsuge Azumi and Shuichi Kato (eds.)  柘植 あづみ・加藤 秀一(編).2007 『遺伝子技術の社会学』テクノソサイエティの現在、文化書房博文社 (The Sociology of Genetic Technology. Studies of Technosociety Series. Tokyo: Bunka Shobo Hakubun; in Japanese). 

Ushiyama Miho 牛山 美穂. 2015.『ステロイドと「患者の知」: アトピー性皮膚炎のエスノグラフィー』新曜社 (The Lay Knowledge of Steroids: An Ethnography of Atopic Dermatitis). Tokyo: Shin-yo-sha.

Yamazaki Goro (ed.) 山崎吾郎編. 2011.「身体のハイブリッド」『文化人類学』("Hybrid Bodies,” Special Issue of Japanese Journal of Cultural Anthropology) 76(3). 

Yamazaki Goro 山崎吾郎. 2015.『臓器移植の人類学: 身体の贈与と情動の経済』世界思想社 (The Anthropology of Organ Transplantation: The Body as Gift and the Affect Economy; in Japanese) Kyoto: Sekaishiso.


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Contributed date

July 14, 2018 - 8:11am

Critical Commentary

This text introduces the development of medical anthropology and STS in Japan. 





Cite as

Gergely Mohacsi, "Medical anthropology ", contributed by Yoko Taguchi and Gergely Mohacsi, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 18 August 2018, accessed 9 December 2022.