Irradiated Trajectories: Medical Radiology in Modern Japan

Author: 

Shi Lin Loh

PhD defended at: 

Harvard

Defended: 

2016

This dissertation examines the history of modern Japan via a study of rentogen, or X-rays, in medical practice. Conventional milestones in Japan’s encounters with nuclear science all date from 1945: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that same year, the Bikini Atoll fallout incident in 1954, the construction of nuclear power plants from the late 1950s onwards, and most recently, the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in 2011. All these events produced hibakusha – the Japanese term for survivors of nuclear-related accidents, or people suffering the effects of exposure to ionising radiation. In contrast, this project locates the first hibakusha in an earlier period, revealing a history of radiation exposure in Japan before the atomic bombings. It reaches into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to find Japanese bodies exposed through the development of radiology.

In modern Japan, as in Western Europe and America, X-rays constituted the first source of ionizing radiation that produced victims of burns, cancers, and deaths. This study highlights the political, social and cultural impact of modern Western medicine on Japanese society from the Meiji period onwards, showing how electric-powered machines and Western expertise came to define medical practice in the emergent field of radiology.

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