Campus & Community

Kuriyama examines body and culture

4 min read

Tracking culture’s footprints on the body’s landscape

In Japan today, the two most common physical complaints are lower back pain and a condition called “katakori,” according to Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History Shigehisa Kuriyama, citing 2003 statistics by the Japanese Ministry of Welfare and Labor.

Though lower back pain is well known in the West, nothing like katakori appears in Western medical literature.

A rough rendering of the word in English would be “shoulder tension,” but Kuriyama said katakori is not the same as the minor muscle knot with which people in the United States might be familiar.

While most people expect differences in culture, religion, and worldview to be present in different nations, most people also expect that the human body and its ailments are pretty much the same wherever you go.

But an examination of different nations’ understanding of how the body works and of the ailments reported by those living in different cultures shows that is not so, Kuriyama said. In fact, as in the case of katakori, people suffer differently and according to a cultural history of pain.

“There is a history of pain,” Kuriyama said. “The things people suffer from differ in different cultures at different times. Our pains are a reflection of our cultural and historical circumstances.”

Kuriyama has made a career of investigating the different views of the body and its ailments held by different cultures. His 1999 book, “The Expressiveness of the Body, and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine,” examined in detail the strikingly different views in ancient Greece and China.

Those differences are represented in two images of the human body reproduced in his book, Kuriyama said. In the Greek image, from Vesallus’ 1543 work, “Fabrica,” the body’s musculature is emphasized. The image is of a person walking across a landscape, but as if he or she had no skin, the muscles highlighted.

Hua Shou’s “Shisijing fahui” from 1341, by contrast, shows no muscles at all, illustrating instead the tracts and points used in acupuncture. Chinese doctors, in fact, had no specific word for “muscle,” Kuriyama said.

“[The body] is like the tale of an elephant and a blind man. If you approach it in different ways, you can find out different things,” Kuriyama said.

Kuriyama should know. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1977 and a master’s degree in 1978 in East Asian languages and civilizations, both degrees from Harvard. His curiosity about traditional views of medicine was piqued as an undergraduate when he served as a translator for an acupuncturist touring the U.S. East Coast and working at a Boston clinic.

While comparing acupuncture with modern medicine, Kuriyama said he concluded, “There’s lots of strange things going on.”

After graduating from Harvard, he returned to Japan to study acupuncture, completing the three-year training and gaining a government license. But acupuncture, like modern surgery, is as much about having a physical skill with the needle as it is about memorizing the places to insert them, Kuriyama said. If there are questions about acupuncture’s effectiveness, he said, is not whether it works or not, but rather whether the practitioner one is seeing is any good.

“I wasn’t any good at acupuncture, so I had to become an academic,” Kuriyama said.

Leaving acupuncture, Kuriyama returned to Harvard to study the history of science, in which he received a doctorate in 1986. He became an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire’s history department and then at Emory University. In 1994, he became an associate professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, returning to Harvard in 2005 as the Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History.

Kuriyama’s current research investigates the links among money, culture, and health. He works extensively with historical images, illustrations, and posters and is translating some of that into digitized movies to be used in the classroom.

Katakori, for example, has its roots in Japan’s shifting of economic gears in the 17th and 18th centuries, Kuriyama said. While England and the West were going through the Industrial Revolution, Japan’s increase in productivity had its roots not in machines, but in the nation’s work ethic.

Hard work became a virtue and an obsession, Kuriyama said, and katakori became known as an illness of laziness, caused by the body’s energy not circulating vigorously. Though katakori remains a prominent complaint today, Kuriyama said, its cause – as understood by a Japanese culture different from the one in which it arose – has changed.

“The irony of this is that in present-day Japan, it is a manifestation of overwork. People are working too hard,” Kuriyama said. “What is a given is that different cultures perceive things differently.”