Episode 85 – Dr. Shi Lin Loh (NUS)

Originally published on December 21, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Shi Lin Loh, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. Dr. Loh is the author, most recently, of “Radiation in Print: Popularizing X-rays in Early Twentieth Century Japan,” published in volume 26 of Historia Scientiarum in 2017. Dr. Loh, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Shi Lin Loh: Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Grunow. I’m very happy to be here.

TG: In your research, you’ve looked at radiology and the introduction of X-rays into Japan, and primarily from this perspective of the history of science. You’re the first person I’ve had on the podcast who’s a practitioner of the history of science, so could you talk about what is this field of the history of science, and what are some of the big questions that you ask (even how you got into the study of X-rays and radiology)?

SLL: Sure, I’d be happy to do that. I’m only one of a group of scholars whose research has been looking at the introduction of various fields of scientific and technological expertise established in the Meiji period, and broadly speaking, my study of X-rays (or rentogen, as they’re called in Japan, and I’ll say a little more about where that name rentogen comes from in a bit). So, I think that there is this growing, exciting sub-field that is part of the established understanding of the Meiji period’s importance for Japan’s national projects of modernization and Westernization through mobilizing science, medicine, technology and engineering.

But this is also a field of scholarship that’s really arguing for the need to unpack how specific fields of scientific, medical, technological or engineering practice actually take place, you know, so showing how they’re contingent processes that happen through particular networks of practitioners. And so, I see the contribution of this scholarship as telling us that we shouldn’t take for granted that scientific modernity occurs in a linear fashion, that it follows any set models of development.

Some of the questions that work in this vein – and I’ll just raise two examples: for instance, Alexander Bay has written a monograph Beriberi in Modern Japan, showing how understandings of disease were contested and treatment of the disease was also a contested set of ideas between the imperial Japanese army and navy; Hoi-eun Kim has also looked at the transfer of medical knowledge from Germany to Japan in his book Doctors of Empire, and these are just two examples of works that are already in print. Victoria Lee does work on the emergence of fermentation science and the establishment of scientific authority in that particular domain, and there’s more examples that could be raised, but one of the broad questions that emerges from works like these are, again, looking at how emergent specialties of modern science get taken up within a particular community of practitioners, and these works try to situate these practitioners within their own broader field of scientific practice, and also look at how people in broader society understand their work as it’s represented through popular media channels.

The reason why, I think, these contributions are important ties back to scholars who work in the broader history and sociology of science or the social studies of science who have shown that there’s actually no such thing as a coherent or unified set of practices or conceptions about what science or indeed technology are, or even medicine are between different fields of research practitioners. For instance, geologists, biologists, metallurgists: all work differently because the natural phenomena they study are also different, and researching (with regard to my own work) on X-rays or rentogen, I’ve seen, for instance, that what people used to understand (we might call it a planning model of science and technology) as these large, public sector government initiatives where officials identify certain areas that they consider necessary to state-building are introduced to Japan through public institutions, including universities, and then transfer it to the private sector for further development and commercialization, such as the textile and shipbuilding industries, aren’t particularly helpful for understanding the development of other kinds of scientific fields and other kinds of scientific communities who work with, again, different kinds of natural phenomena, including things like radiation.

So in the case of X-rays, it wasn’t a case of, for instance, the Ministry of Technology identifying X-rays as an emergent technology that would be useful to Japan’s state-building needs. It was, in fact, individual scientists and individual physicians who got excited by seeing and hearing about the discovery of X-rays in Germany in 1895 who brought devices and the scientific knowledge that was necessary to use those devices back to Japan to share with their colleagues. My study of X-rays… I’d have to preface my remarks by saying that I do acknowledge that my initial interest in X-rays is an incredibly presentist one, in part because up until the Fukushima Disasters happened, I had actually been planning to continue my earlier research on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In that earlier research, I had been interested in looking at how local and national commemorations of the two cities were distinguished from each other in narratives where Nagasaki was framed as this city of prayer and Hiroshima was framed as a city of anger, and you know, thinking about how those sorts of more local or regional kinds of narratives about the two A-bomb cities were occluded from the larger national narrative of understanding Japanese victimhood as being the only A-bomb nation in the world. Then, I thought that initially, I would develop that into maybe a dissertation about the aerial bombings of Japan, so including the atomic bombings, but also the fire bombings of the 66 Japanese cities by the U.S army.

When March 11, 2011 happened, I soon had this realization (that was almost this shock of realizing): Goodness. I and a lot of the scholars who’d been working on the history of the atomic bombings, I mean from the Japanese perspective, haven’t analyzed the bombs themselves or this whole enterprise of nuclear weapons as scientific or technological things (you know, phenomena in their own right). And so, what would happen if we did that, and this got me thinking then about what broader histories of nuclear science and radiation are there that we might tell: are the atomic bombings really Japan’s first encounter with the nuclear age and with radiation? So, you know from your own research, Tristan, that they’re not, but that particular history also wasn’t obvious to me, which is why I thought that embarking on this study of the first extensiation of radiation science and technology in the modern world really starts with the discovery of x-rays by the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895.

When I started looking into this, I then discovered that this was a story where, in fact, Japan was also a very early adopter of X-rays, science and technology. And although I should mention also that X-ray science and technology was not a particularly dominant field within either science, technology or medicine in the pre-war/interwar Japan, it certainly took on very important overtones because X-ray screenings eventually became a part of anti-tuberculosis campaigns from the 1930s onwards for instance.

So, there’s ways in which X-rays get folded into public health policy as a basic technology in promoting and achieving public health in Japan then from the 1930s onwards, but you know, I was able to find, I think, through looking at the introduction of X-rays into Japan. I mentioned that they were discovered by the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, so they began to be called rentogen or rentogen-sen (rentogen rays) in Japan as a tribute eponymously after Wilhelm Röntgen, and this was not unique to Japan because you can see the terminology of the rentogen rays very often in European/North American documents from the early to mid 20th century as well. It was pretty common.

What this suggests then is that while the atomic bombs are this particular, new extensiation as a weapon of radiation science and technology, the natural phenomenon of ionizing radiation has already been discovered and been around for decades before that. There are whole communities of practitioners across various fields of the natural sciences and medicine in Japan as well as in North America and Europe (again in other places around the world) that are working with the same natural phenomena with similar sets of machines or devices through which they investigate the workings of this natural phenomena. People are taking part in these broader conversations within these communities of scientific or technological or medical experts about the effects of these rays and what they meant for human understanding of the natural world, and our radioactivity and radioactive materials.

TG: You were talking before about some of the connections between X-rays and the atomic bomb, and there is this one really curious episode in the history of Japan where these two things really do come together: it’s the Japanese scientist Nishina Yoshio who, when he goes to Hiroshima the day after the atomic bombing, he realizes that the device that was dropped on Hiroshima was atomic, precisely because the X-rays were exposed in the basement of the Red Cross hospital, isn’t that right?

SLL: That’s correct. Though, I had mentioned earlier that X-ray screenings have already become a part of public health policy as a screening technology for use in anti-tuberculosis campaigns by the late 1930s. And so, that’s one reason why the hospitals have X-ray films: because they have X-ray machines by which they’re screening patients, and there’s also a smaller field of these more powerful X-ray machines. They’re also used for therapeutic purposes to actually try and treat cancer. This indeed, as you raise out in the episode of Nishina, I think points to both the fact that there’s already this particular extensiation of radiation science and technology in Japan before the atomic bombings – and again, X-rays (or rentogen) – and that this particular technology doesn’t have a single purpose. What I mean by that is that although Nishina found the films in the Red Cross hospital in Hiroshima (so they were being used, again, with the purpose of medical diagnosis in that particular context), there were other scientists at Nishina’s home institution of RIKEN (the Institute of Physical and Chemical Scientific Research) who were using X-rays to work on other aspects of natural scientific research in the physical and chemical sciences.

If you look back to this earlier history of how X-rays actually come into Japan, the first instance documented is actually one of Nishina’s eminent colleagues who was also a physicist: Nagaoka Hantarō, and people in the history of science (or are familiar with the history of physics) may recognize Nagaoka Hantarō’s name as one of the earlier progenitors of an atomic model that consisted of electrons moving around a centre like the rings of Saturn, so it’s known as the Nagaoka Saturnian model. This was proposed a few years before Ernest Rutherford actually discovered the atomic nucleus in 1911. Then, subsequent work by European scientists showed that the atomic structure consists of the nucleus with electrons orbiting around it, so Nagaoka is studying in Germany at the time of the announcement of Röntgen’s discovery, and he’s so excited by it that he writes a letter to his physicist colleague in Japan, back at Tokyo Imperial University, telling his colleague about this wonderful new discovery that lets you see into the structures of things, you know, reveals the anatomy of human beings, and he encloses this very famous first radiograph that Röntgen took of his wife’s hand, and so the photograph basically shows the hand with the bones (you can see all the bones) and the shadow of the wedding ring his wife was wearing around her ring finger.

This also speaks to the importance that X-rays had in popular culture for some people around the world where after announcements of Röntgen’s discovery became international, they were fascinated by the idea that you could see into the human body, and define its inner working. This little episode that you refer to, coming back to Nishina Yoshio discovering the exposed X-ray films at the Hiroshima Red Cross hospital, speaks to this longer history by which X-rays become a commonplace object within certain fields of scientific and medical practice again not only in Japan, but in many other places in Europe and North America.

TG: And then another crossover is the figure of Nagai Takashi, whom you’ve also written about.

SLL: Nagai Takashi features in a book manuscript that I’m working on, and it’s also somebody that I looked at in the context of the earlier work I mentioned on commemorations of the atomic bombings of Japan. I think for listeners who don’t know about Nagai Takashi… well first, I would point them to this lovely new book written by Chad Diehl called Resurrecting Nagasaki. He discusses the evolution of commemorating Nagasaki in the Japanese context, and also has a chapter on Nagai’s role as the most prominent martyr, if you will, of the Nagasaki bombing.

Nagai was very prominent for two reasons: he was a very very prolific writer whose many memoirs and essays about his experience of the atomic bombing, surviving this particular tragedy were very widely circulated in Japan. The most prominent example of this is his memoir called The Bells of Nagasaki, which has also been translated into English, and his experiences had particular resonance for international audiences because he was also a devout Catholic.

He framed his understanding of the Nagasaki bombing very much in these theological terms; if you will, saw the bomb as divine providence, and this also relates back to the broader history of how the bombing of Nagasaki disproportionately affected the Catholic community there because the bomb fell very close to what was then the largest cathedral in Asia, and so decimated the Catholic community, which also had its own longer history of persecution in Japan following the bans on Christianity and being a Christian from the 16th century onwards. I had always thought of Nagai in those terms alone, but when I began doing this research in X-rays, I discovered then that I had completely overlooked, when thinking about Nagai as this kind of atomic bomb martyr or saint if you will (and he was often religized as the saint of Nagasaki), is that that particular understanding of him ignores the fact that he very much considered himself a scientist and a doctor.

And in fact, he was a radiologist, so as you mentioned, another point of coincidence between the post-Hiroshima and the pre-Hiroshima age that is connected by, again, these longer histories of radiation science and technology that are also practiced in Japan that you know, Japanese researchers, clinicians are engaging with. I think Nagai’s particular experiences… Nagai is a hibakusha in the context of the atomic bombings in the sense of just surviving the atomic bombings, of having being exposed to the radiation from the bombs, but even before the Nagasaki bombing, he had already been a hibakusha in the broader sense of being exposed to radiation from his work with X-rays because he was very much involved, with, again, screening patients during the war or in sometimes also using these more therapeutic machines for cancer treatments. So, he’s a little known example of this double hibakusha, and the fascinating thing about him is that again, despite being a double martyr to his scientific or medical career as a radiologist and also as a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing, he never loses his enthusiasm for science, and until his death in 1951, he’s almost a booster for the peaceful and civilian uses of science, including atomic science (that means our technology), very much foreshadowing, I think, later American-led campaigns around this idea of “atoms for peace,” and turning weapons and technology towards supposedly civilian and peaceful, practical uses for the benefit of mankind.

TG: I understand your research on radiology also led you to working on this documentary called Healing FukushimaSo could you tell us a little bit about this documentary film?

SLL: In 2016, a colleague from Nanyang Technological University, which is also here in Singapore, the sociologist called Sulfikar Amir approached me and said that he was working on a documentary about medical responses in Fukushima, and the reason why he was working on this documentary is because he himself had been interested in studying nuclear power in Asia, particularly in his own home country of Indonesia.

He had actually visited Fukushima Daiichi in 2009, I believe (two years before the disaster happened). He also has a secondary interest in visual and media culture, and was an amateur filmmaker. He wanted to then make the documentary about Fukushima, and he asked me: “Would you help me work on this as a co-producer?”

And I enthusiastically jumped at the chance to do so because for better or worse, my approach to scholarship is primarily historical, but it’s also really a pastiche of kinds of approaches and insights from a variety of disciplines, and I had been thinking of course, because as I mentioned before, the initial motivation for going back to look at this history of X-rays and radiation in Japan had really been stimulated by watching the unfolding disaster of Fukushima (or 3/11 as it’s called in Japan). 3/11 is still, I think, very much a disaster in the present progressive tense if you will; it’s still ongoing, the studies being done on the potential neurobiological effects on this chronic exposure to low doses of ionizing radiation… People aren’t really sure yet. These things take decades to actually yield any kinds of meaningful conclusions from the epidemiological perspective. But so anyway, I saw this project as this great opportunity to think about the contemporary relevance of this work that I’ve been doing with historical materials around, again, longer histories of radiation and X-rays.

Sulfikar and I went to Fukushima in early 2017, and I should also mention that our colleague at NTU in Singapore Lisa Onaga was also an important collaborator in this project as well, but so anyways, this was a collaborative project. In Fukushima, we interviewed seven medical practitioners who had been involved with the disaster as first responders, and we just asked them to speak to us about how their institutions and they themselves as individuals had understood the unfolding disaster both in its human terms, and in terms of the radiation disaster component of it, and how they had dealt with their own intents, fears and insecurities.

It was a situation where even people who didn’t have prior expertise in dealing with radiation emergencies were basically called on to frantically gain as much knowledge as they could last minute to cope with treating acutely exposed workers, saved from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and civilians who were at high risk of radiation exposure in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. What emerges: most of these practitioners are based around this one particular network of physicians at the flagship medical university of Fukushima Prefecture (we just call it Fukushima Medical University), and so I wrote a script for this documentary, which took these testimonies, these oral accounts from these first responders, and put them together to show the complex dimensions involved in medical first responses to a radiation accident or disaster on the scale of Fukushima.

One of the interesting things is that it turns out (in the course of doing these interviews, this sort of field research) there were experts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had been dispatched to Fukushima to help their Fukushima colleagues, again, deal with emergency responses, and longer term responses to the disasters. Two of them actually were second or third generation hibakusha from Nagasaki, and it was very interesting for me personally to see that particular legacy of the atomic bombings. It’s also really easy to say that it’s established this kind of genealogy, if you will, of expertise on radiation disaster, and these have also helped establish scientific institutions that have knowledge of radiation science and technology in the particular context of disasters and disaster responses, and also researching disasters to try and establish their particular effects on human health.

We’re seeing the extension of those sorts of institutional legacies in the Fukushima context as well. And so for me, if you take that and juxtapose that again with the first stage of history of institutionalizing, gradually, radiology in Japan as the first primary field where scientific expertise around radiation in Japan is first established (as it later is in other countries), I think we get a much more interesting and rich, complex picture of how people in Japan have actually understood radiation risk. What I mean by that is that in the post-World War II context, people (including, I think many Japanese people) have this sort of image of Japan as being violently (or very passionately rather) anti-nuclear and so, opposed to a lot of things that have to do with radiation exposure. I think that’s true to a certain extent )that this particular response is real), but on the other hand, it’s also true that Japan has one of the highest rates of medical exposure to X-rays in the world. This speaks to, again, the sort of normalization and the successful institutionalization of X-ray technology, of X-ray medicine as, again, a basic tool of clinical practice and also of scientific research. We don’t understand how these two narratives fit together or how radiation risk in one context that deals with nuclear weapons or nuclear energy disasters co-exists with risk that is straight from a different context in regards to these routine medical procedures or so-called “pure” scientific research. Thinking about that is what has been really interesting for me.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode: 

Shi Lin Loh, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, December 21, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-85-dr-shi-lin-loh/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.