One year ago, I wrote a paper for Culture and Disability, an elective course in my Anthropology program. I took this course because, as you probably noticed by now, I am very interested in the history of medicine (and in medical anthropology as a whole), in particular in the Japanese history of psychiatry and its relation to culture. For this course, I chose to write about Hansen’s Disease, which had (and has, to some degree) been a controversial topic in Japan. You can read about the history of leprosy in Japan in this post. While researching Japanese policies on Hansen’s disease I stumbled across the genre of leprosy literature. I felt that this topic deserved more attention, so here is a short introduction to the genre.
From 1909 until this day, Hansen’s disease patients residing at leprosaria have produced a considerably large amount of literary works. The Collected Works of Hansen’s Disease Literature that is being published from the year 2002 on, covers thus far leprosy literature up to 1965 but counts already 10 volumes of each around 550 pages. Leprosy literature (rai bungaku 癩文学or hansenbyō bungaku ハンセン病文学) can be described as prose, essays and poetry on the topic of leprosy by leprosy sufferers, a unique phenomenon in its kind, since no other literary genre exists in Japan named after a disease. It is important to note that this excludes stories in which leprosy plays a role, but is not written by patients themselves.
During the 1930s for example, Japanese people were fascinated by this phenomenon of leprosy, illustrated by the many whodunits in which not the murderer but the ‘leper’ who had infected the protagonist, had to be unmasked (Burns, 2004). More highbrow literature used leprosy as a metaphor for an inevitable fate. Neither of these genres centered around the experiences of the Hansen’s disease patient him/herself. On the contrary, such stories often encouraged the stigmatizing ideas about leprosy patients at that time. Literature written by patients, on the other hand, focused strongly on the psychological impact of being diagnosed with leprosy and the pursuit of happiness once inside the leprosarium.
Furthermore, leprosy literature is characterized by a particular style of writing. Traditional Japanese poetry such as haiku and tanka was often preferred over other literary genres since it was accessible in structure, allowed to convey personal feelings anonymously, and was usually composed in a collective setting (Tanaka, 2013). The establishment of poetry circles inside the leprosaria generated a feeling of belonging and community. Hence, literature produced by isolated leprosy patients can be regarded as an expression of a disability culture.
However, leprosy literature should not be considered as the literary materialization of right-based movement ideology or outside of the context of the isolation policy. “For some patients, an escape from social stigma and the sense of duty to the nation was a source of happiness. For others, they chafed at the forcible quarantine and life in the hospital. In their poems, the process of translation is a more complex process (Tanaka, 2013: 114)”. Burns (2004) points out that leprosy literature was not exclusively directed against the system of institutionalization; on the contrary, the institution itself was actively involved in the production of residents’ literature. Already in the 1930s, every leprosarium had its own journal which contained, besides reports and announcements, prose and poetry written by patients. Hence, the journal circulated mainly inside the leprosarium and was seldom read by ‘healthy’ people. This changed when leprosy patient Hōjō Tamio published a series of short stories with the recommendation of famous writer Kawabata Yasunari in a well-known literary journal. Intra-leprosarium competitions were also held, and these attracted exceptionally the attention of ‘outside’ readers.
The production of “leprosy literature” was thus mediated—indeed encouraged—by the leprosarium system, which provided an incentive to write by authorizing the annual competitions, created a medium for publication in the form of the house journals, and gave financial rewards and status to patients who became authors and editors. It is important to note, however, that censorship was involved as well. (Burns, 2004: 201)
Burns further argues that the encouragement of literary output by the Japanese authorities was a political strategy to promote the system of institutionalization. This places leprosy literature in a context of propaganda and self-censorship; through his or her own literature, the system created “a citizen who was willing to be hospitalized for the good of the nation, with every effort aiming for the eradication of the illness from the Japanese social landscape (Tanaka, 2013: 102)”. In other words, a cultural identity did not only emerge from among the patients themselves, it was also mediated, reshaped and encouraged by the authorities in favor of an isolation policy. Especially the portrayal of the leprosarium as a place in which patients could rediscover the meaningfulness of life, served to assure both leprosy patients and ‘healthy’ people of the leprosarium’s usefulness.
Leprosy literature is indeed a unique genre that emerged from personal experiences intersecting with the social and political climate in Japan at a given point in history. All elements in the story of Japanese Hansen’s disease patients have contributed to the formation of this specific genre, which can thus be identified as an expression of disability culture. To finish, I introduce you to an example: this short poem (tanka 短歌) below was printed in a 1927 pamphlet and written by patient Kanemaru Yūichi. It appeared in translation in Tanaka (2013), but here I provide my own translation. For more poems, click on the link to read Tanaka’s article and translations.
ようやくに yōyaku ni Even if at last
病む心地さえ yamu kokochi sae I had forgotten the pain
忘れて得し wasurete eshi in my heart, how lonely
吾に淋しき ware ni sabishiki I felt when my dear father
慈父の門出よ jifu no monde yo departed through the gate
– Kyushu Leper Asylum Guide Book, 1927, p. 419
- Burns, Susan L. “Making Illness into Identity: Writing ‘Leprosy Literature’ in Modern Japan.” Japan Review 16 (2004): 191–211.
- Tanaka, K. M. “Contested Histories and Happiness: Leprosy Literature in Japan.” Health, Culture and Society 5, no. 1 (November 15, 2013).