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Contested histories and happiness: Leprosy literature in Japan

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Japanese government passed a series of laws targeting people diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). As a result, many patients were quarantined in public leprosaria, often for life. In order to cope with both the diagnosis of a heavily stigmatized illness and a lifetime in isolation, patients began to write. The works produced by sufferers became so popular that by the mid-1930s their writing was referred to as a distinct literary genre, “leprosy literature.” Studies of leprosy literature have focused on its depiction of human rights violations, struggles with the illness, and the difficulty of life in quarantine. However, patient writing in the 1930s also reveals the multiple ways in which patients found happiness within the institution. In this sense, leprosy literature is also a site of translation, revealing the negotiations of hospital life involving hospital and medical authorities, patients, leprosy relief groups, and government policies. Residents of the leprosaria represent happiness in multiple ways depending on their conception of their illness and life in the leprosaria. For some patients, the institution itself was a source of happiness in that their illness was stigmatized to the degree that life outside the hospital became unbearable. Other writers chafed at life in the hospital; the translation of happiness in their writing is a more complex process. This paper takes these diverse processes of translation as its starting point and examines the multiple ways in which patients conceived of health and happiness within the confines of hospital life.

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Journal Article
Tanaka K M
Year of Publication
Health, culture and society
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