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Negotiating States of Mind: Melancholia and Psychiatric Knowledge between Europe and Japan, 1880-1920

Helena Jaskov

The Vanishing of Melancholia in Japan

Western concepts of melancholia were introduced to Japan at different periods and in different guises. In the 18th and early 19th century a few Japanese scholars versed in Dutch and eager to learn Western medicine were familiar with humoral explanations of melancholia or “black bile disease”. When psychiatry emerged as an independent discipline, English and German medical texts provided new definitions of melancholia, shifting the focus to nerves and brain functions. With the institutionalization of psychiatry in Japan in the 1880s, melancholia became a widespread diagnosis in Japanese asylums.

However, by the turn of the century the now familiar concept of melancholia seems to have lost its explanatory power and began to gradually disappear. This project has traced the vanishing of melancholia in Japanese medical discourse from 1880—1915. It has shown that this process was caused by institutional as well as conceptual changes within psychiatry itself. Furthermore, it has demonstrated that some Japanese psychiatrists have challenged these changes and developed methods to conceptualize mental illness end redefine melancholia by transgressing the boundaries between psychiatry and psychology.

Examining the academic relations and institutional ties of Japanese psychiatrists at the turn of the 20th century, the vanishing of melancholia in Japan is closely linked to the central role of the Japanese Society for Psychiatry and Neurology and the dominating influence of the Tôkyô Imperial University with its preference of the German “Heidelberg school” of psychiatry. Promoting their ideas on conferences and in medical journals, the Japanese advocates of the “Heidelberg school” reached a wide audience and secured the continuity of their views through textbook publications.

The conceptual changes which lead to melancholia’s disappearance were not restricted to psychiatric practice in Japan. However, Japanese sources are exceptionally well suited to illustrate and explain these changes. At the time of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the concept of melancholia was still in use, but some psychiatrists had already begun replacing it with more popular concepts, such as manic-depressive illness and dementia praecox. Focusing on patient files of Japanese soldiers with conflicting diagnoses, I have analyzed the changes in perception which eventually allowed to re-conceptualize melancholic patients.

My findings have shown that the traditional narrative of melancholia’s vanishing as a result of emphasizing affective symptoms has to be reconsidered. A comparison with the experience of Russian physicians in the same war has further revealed a striking resemblance between the diagnostic practices within certain social groups. There are more similarities in the practice of metropolitan psychiatrists, military doctors and medical attendants across national boundaries than between the different professions within a country.

Finally, some Japanese critics of the “Heidelberg school” have strayed from the path taken by the Japanese Society for Psychiatry and Neurology and the psychiatrists of Tôkyô Imperial University. Drawing on methods developed in experimental psychology in Germany and the United States they have questioned the coherence and validity of the newly designed disease entities. Proposing an alternative method to define melancholia, the little-known work of Matsubara Saburô (1877—1936) exemplarily shows how Japanese psychiatrists engaged with theories and methods from different disciplines to actively create knew knowledge within a scientific community that encompassed Asia, Europe and America.