5/25 Kanpo as a Cultural Agency

Our discussion was centered in Kanpo and then aquariums as Julian led us. In the reading of Kanpo, we explored the implications of treating illnesses and diseases and further established the defining differences between western medicine and Kanpo medicine. The fascination of Kanpo, however, is that it has cultural implications in Japan and that we can never discuss Kanpo outside of the Japanese cultural environment, and vice versa.

We started off discussion of Kanpo with Valeria’s presentation on part of Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. She talked about the major difference between Western medicine and Kanpo medicine by making a distinction between pathogen and etiology. While Western medicine is focused on finding the exact pathogen and fighting it out of the patient’s body, Kanpo medicine is concentrated in studying the etiology of certain illness and trying to adjust the body’s relation to the environment in order to recover health. Suggesting that etiology includes climate conditions or environmental factors, the author is able to make a common ground for Kanpo, which encapsulates the Japanese understanding of illnesses, and the culture. Then, Valeria picked an example that illustrates this common ground. The fact that Kanpo characterizes the inner environment as pure and the outer environment as dirty aligns with the cultural meaning of 玄関 as separating the dirtiness outside and the purity inside.

Then regarding the reading, Prof. Selinger proposed some binaries to consider when thinking about the relationship between Kanpo and the Western medicine: illness vs. disease, treating imbalance vs. treating pathogens, chronic illness vs. acute illness, correlational thinking vs. magic-bullet thinking, the body as homeostatic vs. the body as discrete parts, and treatment vs. diagnosis. As Prof. Selinger pointed out and observed in the reading, the binary between illness and disease is not one of nonscience and science, but one of social understanding and science. Above all the differences in the way of thinking, the fundamental uniqueness of Kanpo is that it has an incredible amount of social interactions and implications; Kanpo has gone so far that it is no longer a school of medicine, but a way of interacting with the body and interacting with the outer environment.

An example we discussed was the “contradiction” of drinking cold water at restaurants while drinking hot tea at home, even for people with 冷え性. Restaurants are places for social interactions, with a sense of openness and constant flow of people, while the home is a highly private and cultural space, where the person receives care. 冷え性, a highly cultural concept, is better looked after at a cultural space like home; meanwhile, the closeness at home also parallels the privacy of 体質 and separates the inner(cultural space, home) and outer environment (social space, e.g. workplace, restaurants) of a person.

Julian’s presentation about aquariums then inspired a lot of discussion and different opinions. An interesting question he brought up is: as a place with high technology and human effort, are aquariums trying to pass the message of human conquest of nature? Does aquariums’ effort for immersion downplay this message or contradict it?

One thing undeniable about aquariums is their display of containment of nature by the human. By having those huge tanks, whatever forms they take and however blurred the line between human and fish is, the aquariums express the idea of manipulating nature. As opposed to wrapping a rock with a paper straw in Shinto temples, containing animals in tanks and displaying them for profits are a clear establishment of power instead of connection. However, the educational purpose of aquariums cannot be erased. When the most innocent eyes of children gaze at the beautiful fish and manmade coral reefs, the aquariums are responsible for teaching them the reality of animals living in the ocean, which is different from those living in a tank, even a delicate one.