If you are stumbling on this episode because you are someone obsessed with Japanese culture, then you probably already know about the blood-type fad that leaves poor Type-Bs at the bottom of the dating pool. What you may not already know, however, is how Japan developed that particular discrimination premise — after all, knowledge about “blood types” is not ancient. It’s not even particularly old! Indeed, the “science” and superstition that shapes the blood-type fad today is rooted in the crossroads of Japanese modernity: Western science, Japanese nationalism, and a heaving effort to get people to stop marrying their damn cousins.

Transcript for At the Crossroads of Modernity: Japan, the Blood-Type Fad, and Eugenic Science in the 20th Century:

Averill: Since the early 2000s, Japan has been experiencing a resurgence of an early 20th-century blood-type discrimination fad. This is a popular practice similar to astrology that relies on personality divination based on blood type – A, O, AB, or B. Like astrology, it is a set of generalized ideas about personality type that corresponds with blood types. Like racial stereotypes, it is a biologically-determined set of fallacies that people use to justify discriminating against people with ‘undesirable’ blood-types, specifically B, and tangentially, AB. Though Japan is one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, this superstition has permeated popular imagination, and discrimination against Type Bs is known as “blood harassment,” or burahara. This is, of course, no more or less unreasonable than reading your daily horoscope, just as common in the United States as burahara is in Japan. But in a 98% ethnically homogenous Japan, Type Bs can be passed over for promotion, harassed, or discriminated against, simply because they are perceived to be phenotypically “hot-headed,” “wild” and “unreliable.” While this obviously isn’t predicated on centuries of oppression and discrimination, like that which Jews experienced (or continue to experience) in Europe, or that Black, Native American, Latinx, or, hell, even East Asians experience in the United States, what’s particularly interesting about the burahara phenomenon is that it is rooted in some of the same racial science that contributed to the development of racist discrimination against Jews and people of color in the 20th century. The markers of modernity — eugenic “science,” medicine, and “democracy” — ushered in an era of particularly nasty discriminatory practices in the US, Germany, the rest of Europe, and indeed, Japan.

Averill: I’m Averill Earls

Sarah: And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

Averill: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: Before we dig into this story of the Japanese eugenics movement, we want to pause to give a big THANK YOU to all of our Patreon supporters, but especially our Auger and Excavator-level patrons. Christopher, Colin, Maggie, Peggy, and Lauren, you are too generous, and we are eternally grateful for your support. Listener, if you are not yet a patron, you can be! We are halfway to our goal of $300/month. At $300 / month, we’ll finally be able to upgrade our 4-year-old recording equipment! Go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Averill: I approached this episode wanting to write about eugenics in Japan. The short story is that Japan adopted eugenic science from the West – along with a great many other things – because it happened that eugenic science was emerging as a useful concept at the end of the 19th century when Japan was modernizing. That didn’t seem like a particularly compelling story. Then I was reading an article by Jennifer Robertson about the shifting ideas about blood in Japan, and the way that “blood” and “heredity” were adapted into Japanese scientific thought, and the author mentioned a “blood type fad” currently (in 2002, when she wrote the essay) gripping Japan. While there isn’t much in the way of academic scholarship (in English) on blood type discrimination, and some Japanese psychologists and other social scientists have worked really hard to debunk this myth, to little avail, it quickly became apparent that there is a link between this current issue and the eugenics movement. As Robertson shows, 20th century Japanese ideas about blood were very much entangled with Japanese ideas about race, marriage, and eugenics. There is more to the 21st century issue of blood type discrimination, and I promise that we will get back to it. But first: Japan, eugenics, and modernity.

Sarah: For about 250 years under the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan was closed to foreigners. The sakoku policy of isolationism decreed that any foreigner who set foot in Japan was to be executed. Then American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Japan’s coasts with superior military technology, a promise of domination through unequal trade “agreements,” and the forced the end of sakoku. Rather than accept this domination by the “West,” Japanese reformist leaders allied against the shogun and overthrew the shogunate.

Averill: For the fifteen-year-old Emperor Meiji, who ascended to the throne in 1867, and his supporters, resisting Western colonization would take more than dismantling the remnants of Japan’s feudal system. Japan would have to become Western. In addition to major political, economic, and social changes, Japan quickly adopted an aggressive imperial program in East Asia to rival the encroaching American, British, French, and Dutch empires.

A black and white etching of Japanese samurai wearing Western style suits
Japanese samurai wearing Western style suits.
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The leaders of the revolution established close relations with the Prussian state before the German empire was established in 1871, and worked very closely with German advisors throughout the Restoration. In order to facilitate the process of rapid modernization – in industry, in military organization, in government, in fashion, in agriculture, and so on – the Japanese state hired foreign advisors. Some scholars have estimated that as many as 3,000 “oyatoi gaikokujin” worked for the Meiji state between 1868 and 1912, and more for private entities.[1] Most were German, though French, British, American, and Italians also worked for both the public and private sector of the modernizing Japan.

Averill: Though the new state was nominally built on the ‘restoration’ of the emperor to his throne, in reality he was expected to consult the leaders who’d done the work to overthrow the shogun, who quickly consolidated their economic and military power after the dismantlement of the samurai-centered feudal system. And in most ways, the Restoration was wildly successful, as a Westernization, modernization, and “Japanization” movement.[2] The Meiji leaders reexamined and redefined what “Japaneseness” meant in the early decades of the restoration. They established a German-style parliamentary system, built a new educational system utilizing French structure and American texts, and adopted a new criminal code modeled on France and Germany’s. From 1881 on, Germany was by far the preferred foreign influence.[3] They also created a civic ideology predicated on the significance of the emperor. We talked about this a bit in our Shintoism episode; the emperor in Japan was, even during the Tokugawa period, supposed to be descended from the goddess of the sun. It suited the new state to create a cult around the emperor, employ Shintoism as a formal state religion, and invoke tradition to move the Japanese people into modernity.  

Sarah: But as we discussed in that episode, the “Shintoism” that the Japanese state employed in their pursuit of modernity was reinvented for those purposes. “Tradition” can be fabricated like anything else.

Averill: Japan’s success as a modernized state was debuted in the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War. Fortified with a Western military and navy, Japan trounced China, forcing them to recognize Korean “independence,” cede Taiwan and several smaller islands to Japanese rule, and open China to Japanese trade. Though Russia, the US, and Britain forced Japan out of Liaodong Province, the other concessions established Japan as an imperial force in East Asia.

Western Eugenics

Sarah: Eugenics as a specific science was a Western phenomenon. While states and scientists all over the world have conceived of ways to control populations and categorize people for centuries, millennia even, the scientific community that we call “eugenicists” developed in the West, and out of Western social and biological scientific inquiries in the 18th and 19th centuries. As we saw in Marissa’s episode “Eugenics in the Making,” this is evident in the 18th century in particular with the development of human typology science, population hygiene concerns, and public sanitation efforts. In the nineteenth century, building on the hypotheses and practices that Marissa was talking about, scientists interested in genetics, inheritance, and species development found a breadth of new research on which to build population control and categorization. The “eugenics” movement was founded by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, an English self-proclaimed statistician, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, geographer, meteorologist… etcetera. He was like a lot of upper-class white men of his time: a jack of all trades, an ‘academic’ with an interest in the human condition, dabbling in a little of everything. When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he was building on ideas that the community of 19th-century among natural scientists called “evolution.” Social scientists like Herbert Spencer and Galton then took those ideas about biology, “natural selection,” and Mendelian genetics to justify their various phenotype and race hierarchy pseudoscience.

Averill: Galton coined the term “eugenics” in 1883, but he wrote widely on race typologies well before. In Hereditary Talent and Character, Galton wrote:

There are certain marked types of character, justly associated with marked types of feature and of temperament. We hold, axiomatically, that the latter are inherited (the case being too notorious, and too consistent with the analog afforded by brute animals, to render argument necessary), and we therefore infer the same of the former For instance, the face of the combatant is square, coarse, and heavily jawed. It differs from that of the ascetic, the voluptuary, the dreamer, and the charlatan.

Still more strongly marked than these, are the typical features and characters of different races of men. The Mongolians, Jews, Negroes, Gipsies [sic], and American Indians; severally propagate their Binds; and each kind differs in character and intellect, as well as in colour and shape, from the other four. They, and a vast number of other races, form a class of instances worthy of close investigation, in which peculiarities of character are invariably transmitted from the parents to the offspring.[4]

a black and white photograph of Francis Galton
Francis Galton in the 1850s
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Eugenics, which is from the Latin for “good birth,” was Galton’s plan for improving society through manipulation of the human population. Galton endeavored to apply the hereditary sciences and “evolution” concepts popularized by his predecessors like Gregor Mendel, Jeanne-Baptiste Lamarck, and Darwin to human social “evolution.” At the start, Galton promoted “positive” eugenics. This approach encouraged “desirable” individuals to reproduce, and “good births” with maternal and infant health care and other social services. He founded the Eugenics Educational Society in 1907, renamed the Eugenics Society in 1926, of which he served as president until 1928. Ultimately the Society, which was international in its membership, also advocated for “negative” eugenics initiatives: discouraging “undesirable” individuals to reproduce, encouraging family limitation through access to effective birth control methods (as in the case of eugenicists Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes), or more insidiously through forced sterilization, euthanasia, and other population restrictions. In my episode of this series, I will be talking about the 1930s German implementation of forced sterilization and euthanasia to eliminate German people with disabilities. In her episode, Elizabeth will talk about the use of sterilization as a primary birth control method in 20th century Puerto Rico. Many of these methods were employed by the various states and individuals who embraced eugenic ideas and outlooks. Japan, which started adopting Western sciences during the earliest years of the Meiji Restoration, imported these eugenic ideas, sometimes verbatim.

Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. Old scientific print. In Japanses blood-type episode.

Image from Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development

Averill: As Japanese eugenicists and policy makers forged a new vision of a Japanese race, they approached the task much in the same way that they did the rest of their “modernization”: by blending both “Western” and “Japanese” ideas. In many ways, when the Japanese began developing their own eugenics movement, they were able to import ready-made model from the West. Japan was not part of the first International Eugenics Congress in 1911, but it was part of the second. Delegates from Japan joined members from Europe, the US, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, El Salvador, Uruguay, India, and Siam in New York in September, 1921 at the Second International Eugenics Congress.

Sarah: Like the Italian connection to the ancient Romans or a German Teutonic race, the Japanese tied their national identity to the ancient Yamato people. The Yamato were an ethnic group that originally inhabited mainland Japan, and was understood to be distinct from the other ethnic groups of the archipelago.

Japan & Blood-Type

Averill: There were two schools of eugenic thought for how the Yamato race could enter a modern era. The first, a “mixed-blood” theory first articulated in 1884, advocated for the intermarriage of Japanese males and Anglo females. This would, per eugenic thought, establish a taller, heavier, more “physically superior Japanese race.”[5] The second position was a “pure-blood” position, which proposed that the Japanese had to eschew interbreeding with any and all Europeans, because to do so would produce a race that was neither European nor Japanese, and would make Japan an international failure. This idea dominated until 1939, when imperialist successes made the “mixed-blood” idea popular again, this time, though, advocating for the intermarriage of Japanese men with Manchurian women, in which, according to one Japanese eugenicist, “mixing superior Japanese blood with inferior Manchurian blood would stimulate the development and civilization of inferior peoples by producing hybrid offspring who would mature as natural political leaders.”[6] Throughout this period, however, all eugenicists agreed that the common Japanese practice of consanguineous marriage was something that would have to stop.

(Yes: we mean that like the nobility of Europe, the Japanese tended to marry their cousins, uncles, aunts.)

Sarah: Japanese scientists took to genetics fairly late, in the 1890s, compared to other Western sciences. The major schools of thought in late-19th century genetics were Mendelian and Lamarckian. In 1908, Japanese geneticist Toyama Kametaro proposed applying Mendelian laws to marriage criteria, but the rest of the Japanese geneticists were reluctant to apply Mendelian answers to human problems.

Averill: Much of the eugenics scholarship reaching Japan from Europe and America labeled the Japanese as “inferior,” along with the rest of East Asia. Japanese, and Chinese, eugenicists had to grapple with defining an ideal “national character” using a scientific model that denigrated the East Asian peoples. Yuehtsen Juliette Chung argues that Japanese and Chinese eugenicists thus turned to a Lamarckian outlook on human genetics, rather than a simpler Mendelian trait inheritance model. Japanese eugenicists were not actually Lamarckian biologists themselves, but Lamarckian ideas are there in their rhetoric and approach to envisioning an ideal Japanese race. This would allow Japanese eugenicists to isolate desirable “inheritable” traits, as well as undesirable traits — like disease — rather than breeding whiteness into the race. This was pursued through initiatives like better prenatal care, medicine and obstetrics to cultivate better children; population politics; and policies that would promote infant health.[7]

Sarah: Lamarckian genetics was more useful, as it is premised on inheritable habits, rather than exclusively genetic material.[8] In this way, the Japanese could reimagine the Japanese race as Western and modern, and pass that on to the next generation.

Averill: Like the Europeans, the Japanese eugenic organization identified what they perceived to be desirable and undesirable “inheritable” traits. The Japanese also tended to, as Jennifer Robertson points out, collapse biology and culture, and thus, “held either explicitly or implicitly Lamarckian views on race formation and racial temperament.”[9] A blended system of “Westernization” and “Japanization” might be, for example, encouraging boys and men to adopt Western fashions – haircuts, three piece suits, and the like – while simultaneously expecting women and girls to continue representing Japanese ‘tradition’ through historical costume and hairstyle.[10]

Sarah: While in the United States eugenicists had very early effects, with examples like the 1907 Indiana sterilization law and the 1908 Oklahoma anti-miscegenation law, eugenic ideals were not introduced into Japanese public policies until the 1930s. As in their military and political modernization, Japanese eugenicists looked mostly to the German example. (Germany, of course, did look to the US as an example of eugenicist laws: particularly their forced sterilization, anti-miscegenation, and 1924 Immigration Restriction laws.) The German way of thinking about nation and racial fitness was replicated in Japan in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, with sometimes severe consequences.  Even as the Japanese crafted a superior racial profile for themselves, they effectively orientalized other East Asian nations. Taiwan and Okinawa to start, then Manchuria after their landmark victory over the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and later, during the Taisho governments aggressive “East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” expansion, Korea, China, the Philippines, and beyond.

Averill: In 1925, the Japanese Eugenic Association formed: While most American eugenicists were geneticists, most Japanese eugenicists were physicians. In 1925, 58 members of the Japanese Eugenic Association were physicians, 2 were educators, 8 were journalists, and 8 were listed as “other.”[11] The profession of the eugenicists shaped, in a lot of ways, the trajectory of the eugenics movement in Japan.

Sarah: Scientists and physicians were excluded from influential positions in government until after World War 1.[12] After 1914, though, the physician profession was important to the development of the Japanese empire. Science and medicine outreach were used for imperial efforts. In 1911, Japan sent 98 doctors to China to treat those wounded in the Chinese revolution. In 1925, Japan founded the “Natural Science Research Institute in Shanghai (thanks to the concessions the Chinese had to make to Japan as a result of the Boxer rebellion). By 1927, Chinese doctors were trained in Japan.[13] These friendly-seeming efforts were intended to foster good relations with other East Asian nations, opening them up to future rule by the Japanese.

Averill: In 1930, the Japanese eugenicists replicated the emerging German obsession with “rassenhygiene.” The Japanese Eugenic Association changed its name to the Japanese Racial Hygiene Association.[14] The JRHA defended Nazi exclusionary acts against Jews. In comparison, the Chinese eugenic leaders, like Pan Guangdan, criticized Nazi “race hygiene” and diverged from the Japanese in the 1930s when the Japanese adopted the language of ‘race hygiene.’ From the early 1930s, the Chinese preferred rhetoric of “national health,” and encouraged interbreeding of Han and frontier ethnicities to “rejuvenate stamina and improve genetic makeup.”[15]

Sarah: When Japanese eugenicists finally started to have some influence over policy-making, their focus was on public health initiatives, and not particularly on the more blood-based/genetic goals of the Nazi regime. Germany was largely influenced by racist American eugenics. Japan was motivated to pursue eugenics because of public health crises, real and imagined. There was a tuberculosis epidemic in Japan between 1880 and 1900, which only declined after World War 2. 200 per 100,000 deaths were attributed to tuberculosis. Leprosy was also quite a problem. In 1900, there were 30,359 lepers in Japan; in 1906, there were 23,819; in 1940, there were still 11,366. Meanwhile, by 1930, there were fewer than 1,000 in the United States; Japan had the second highest number of people with leprosy in the world, next to China. Venereal disease was also rampant in Japan, particularly among youths conscripted into the (modernizing) Japanese military. There were 11,326 cases in 1933, and 70% of those cases were attributed to young soldiers having sex with infected sex workers. A 1933 survey of sex workers in Japan concluded that of 1.9 million sex workers, 64,422 had an active STI.[16]

Averill: These are obviously not hereditary issues. Japanese racial hygienists used eugenic ideas to support their public health initiatives. Leprosy was considered an epidemic in need of address even before the physicians gained any kind of influence in public policy making; as early as 1907 the Japanese Diet passed state legislation to round up homeless people with leprosy. Later, in 1926, eugenicist Takaho Rokuro suggested that the Japanese could purify their racial blood by creating segregated leper colonies, a national asylum, and “detention hospitals” for the “worst” lepers–those who raped gambled, drank, etc. In Japan as in Europe, lepers were associated with a range of sexual deviance and other vices, as Marissa discussed in “Walking Corpses” episode. Eugenicists also suggested sterilization for lepers who wanted to live a married life. Leprosy is non hereditary, which Japanese scientists knew, but eugenicists still cataloged it as a barrier to “racial hygiene.”[17]

Sarah: In addition to formal legislation, Japanese eugenics — still mostly physician — sought to improve “racial hygiene” through literal fitness. Nagai Hisomu, one of the leaders of the eugenics movement in Japan, wrote a treatise in 1933 on physical activity for creating a healthier race. He proposed that the Japanese needed more exercise, needed to stop drinking alcohol, and needed to consume more animal products, like their Western counterparts. Animal products were not abundant in Japan itself, and these would come from colonies, particularly those established on the continent. Hisomu’s vision fit into the imperialist slant that Japanese eugenics and modernization took in the early 20th century. Notably, historian Jennifer Robertson suggests that Hisomu was by far the most outspoken proponent of negative eugenics in 1930s Japan. He supported induced abortions and forced sterilization for those deemed “unfit,” including alcoholics, “lepers,” the mentally ill, the criminal, the physically disabled, homosexuals, and even blood type Bs.[18]

Japanese National Eugenic Bill

Averill: In lock step with Nazi race hygiene policies, the Japanese government proposed the National Eugenic Bill in 1934. Assembled by race hygienists and eugenicists, the 1934 bill advocated sterilization to prevent hereditary “feeblemindedness,” mental diseases, venereal disease, alcoholism, tuberculosis, and leprosy, and was one of a handful of legislative acts passed in the 1930s.[19] It also required that potential marriage partners obtain complete physicals before tying the knot, and prevented people with VD from marrying. Channeling the core values of their physician members’ goals for the eugenics movement, the 1934 bill also intended to allocate state-provided healthcare for the protection of motherhood. Pieces of the bill were adopted throughout the 1930s, and by the end of the decade – and the rise of Japan as a major East Asian imperial power – eugenics were central to the empire. In 1938, the newly formed Ministry of Health and Welfare had a eugenics office.

Sarah: The National Eugenics Law, based on that 1934 bill, was passed in May 1940. A national marriage counseling center was established, to be headed by Hisomu, who was also the editor of one of the major eugenic journals in Japan, Yusei. Similarly, at the Sato Institute for New Home Life, psychologist Köra Tomiko trained girls to be ideal brides along eugenic lines. Students received extensive sex education, with particular emphasis on the importance of not marrying men with VD.[20]

Averill: In the March 1936 issue of Yusei, a journal aimed mostly at a female readership, with an all-female editorial board for the first years of its life, a male psychiatrist explained why marriage counseling was so important:

  1. Purpose of marriage is the wellbeing of family and prosperity of the descendants
  2. To achieve well-being of family and prosperity of descendants, one has to be selective about the quality of his or her spouse. Women, whose fate is often determined by marriage, need to be particularly careful.
  3. Marriage customs based on superstitions and traditions will be things of the past.
  4. Rational selection based on eugenics is desirable for modern people and should replace old forms of marriage.
  5. Choosing a spouse of good quality was as important as avoiding one of “poor quality” and ensuring the physical and mental fitness of descendants is a source of the well-being of immediate as well as extended family in a smaller context. It is also the foundation of the betterment of the state and race in a larger context.
  6. Popularization of eugenic marriage which aims at family well-being and the racial purification (minzoku joka) is the effort of highest moral value.

Yusei, as a general rule, did not counsel women to pursue family limitation. Rather, they preferred to encourage fecundity in their readers, because the imperial mission of the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere would require many new babies to populate the vast Japanese empire. It did, as these six points suggest, discourage marriage to “undesirables” — much like the 1934 Eugenic Bill, and later 1940 law. It encouraged women to avoid men with VD and TB, as well as alcoholics and lepers.[21]

A black and white illustration of several Japanese people sitting in a circle eating together at a wedding
A Japanese Wedding
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: All of the major eugenics journals of the early 20th century in Japan emphasized the importance of ending consanguineous marriage. According to Jennifer Robertson, 16% of Japanese marriages were “Blood marriages” in the 1920s — marriages between 1st, 2nd, and ½ cousins, as well as to aunts and uncles.[22] This is….a startlingly high number. Blood marriages were extremely common, a sort of ‘strategic endogamy’ (Robertson term); ‘familiarity’ was supposed to make more amenable marriages.[23]  Japanese eugenicists were especially pronatalis, which contrasts sharply with the Margaret Sanger / Marie Stopes approach that we see in the US or Britain, but which is very much in line with the German eugenicist ideology, even during the Weimar period. Somewhat notably, Margaret Sanger visited Japan and China in the 1920s, but evidently her pro-birth control point of view didn’t permeate the powerful members of the emerging Japanese eugenics movement; men almost exclusively dominated the institutions with any real power.[24]

Averill: But the fact that 1 in 6 Japanese people was married to a close blood relative was particularly problematic for a movement that was at least in part centered on genetics and the prevention of hereditary disease transmission. Some eugenicists, in Japan but also in Europe, argued that inbreeding was a good idea. They pointed back to Francis Galton’s thesis in about “hereditary genius,” which suggests that intelligence diminishes the further from the original source one gets; and thus keeping genetic material circling within a set of blood relative marriages was a preservation tactic. Most, though, believed that diseases and birth anomalies were multiplied through inbreeding.[25] 

Sarah: So we return to the issue of blood in Japanese culture and eugenic thought. Eugenicists emphasized the importance of the “bilineality of national genealogy” – that both the mother and father’s bloodlines were important to the health of the nation.[26] This was not reflected in the 1898 Meiji civil code. Women could not “pass on” nationality until 1985 update to the Civil Code. Up to that point, only patrilineage mattered.

Averill: As we’ve already suggested, the eugenics movement itself was largely run by and empowered by men. In a highly patriarchal society — where the markers of “tradition” were inscribed on women’s bodies, where the emphasis of the eugenics movement itself was predicated on framing women as mothers to the Japanese race and imperial dream, and not as agents who might get to choose if or when they might want to have children — there was very little Japanese feminists could do within the eugenics movement to advocate for women. In some ways, as Sumiko Otsubo, Jennifer Robertson, and others have shown, feminists were able to operate within the eugenics movement to effect change in favor of women – things like improved maternal health, education for women (so that they could meet men who were not their cousins to marry), etc., were, after all, better for women than the old ways – but ultimately the (male) eugenicists who took baby steps to challenge the patriarchy did so not because they wanted to liberate women, and not because they were feminist, but because they saw women as baby machines. And to produce good babies, they needed to be treated better than they had in the Tokugawa period. Yay.[27]

Sarah: In the case of Marie Stopes of the UK, who was a eugenicists and a downright dick about it sometimes, at least there is this like saving grace moment about her where she at least advocated for access to birth control and a woman’s right to make most of her own decisions about when and if to have babies. Otsubo calls the eugenics movement, so fixated on, really, who gets to have sex with whom, and who–lepers, alchies, etc.–should not be allowed to have sex, “maternal feminist eugenics” — but this is misleading, because as Jennifer Robertson points out, this is not feminism at all. It’s not advocating for women’s rights to anything, other than decent access to (maternal) healthcare. Robertson calls this a gynocentric eugenics, which is a more effective way of categorizing what is happening in Japan.

Eugenic Marriage

Averill: So “eugenic marriage” became a major focus of the Japanese eugenics movement – counseling on favorable matches based on blood and identity. A leader in this movement was Ikeda Shigenori, editor of another of the major eugenics journals, who published articles about the importance of monogamy (“monogamy was the foundation of eugenics”), but also pro-physical education, nutrition lessons, group hiking, and of course, “wholesome folk dancing in the countryside.”[28] Shigenori, who was a journalist and eugenicist, founded a Eugenic Exercise/Movement Association, which primarily targeted girls/women, in pursuit of the “health and fitness” of THE Japanese Race through female genes. He emphasized that romantic relationships could be built through co-education and hobbies, rather than …. kinship. As you’ll recall, this was important, because one reason consanguineous marriages were so common is that the Japanese believed a marriage would be more harmonious if the couple knew each other – in most cases, as cousins or some other semi-close blood relation – before the marriage.

Sarah: Discouraging inbreeding and encouraging young people to find ‘appropriate’ and ‘eugenic’ spouses was a primary goal of the various eugenics journals and magazines. In April 1942 (while Japan was fighting a war of imperialism, btw), Shashin Shuho (Photograph Weekly)

Printed a two page spread on the ideal eugenic couple. In the image, which Jennifer Robertson’s reproduced in her fascinating article, the spread is framed by a young Japanese man on one side, and a young Japanese woman on the other. The man is dressed in a Western-style suit, complete with tie, and his hair is cropped short and presumably combed back with liberal amounts of Pomade. The woman is dressed in a traditional kimono, wears silk stockings under traditional sandals. According to the text, the ideal woman would be “154 cm tall, weighed 51 kg, a chest size of 80 cm, and 25 years old or younger. The ideal man would be 165cm tall, 58kg, chest size of 84 cm, 25 or younger. Both free from disease with “normal” genealogies.”

Averill: Accompanying the spread were the 10 rules of marriage: [29]

  1. Choose a lifetime partner
  2. Choose a partner healthy in body and mind
  3. Exchange health certificates
  4. Choose someone without bad genes
  5. Avoid marriage with blood relatives
  6. Marry as soon as possible
  7. Discard superstitions and quaint customs
  8. Obey your parents
  9. Have a simple and economical wedding
  10. And reproduce, for the nation

In addition to the cutouts of the couple, there were photographs of a simple, austere (think “war time”) marriage ceremony; the couples’ health certificates; and a terrifying cartoon of the ideal results of this union: 8 children. The extensive caption below the image reads:

Only people can accomplish the construction of Greater East Asia. Superior (yuno) people are greatly needed for our future. There is one condition that must be fulfilled in order to increase the number of superior people and that is the promotion and encouragement of marriage. For every Japanese child born, seven children are born in China, five in India, and three in the Soviet Union. However important it is to increase the population, the birth of the physically weak and mentally impaired children will harm the national body (kokutai). Therefore, let us be sure to think carefully about marriage and to transact a wholesome union in order to bring forth superior offspring. Then, in ten or twenty years, the strong children who will lead East Asia will have increased in number to the point where by Showa 35 (1970), the population of the main islands (naichi) of Japan will have topped 100 million. Is that not a wonderful scenario to contemplate? (Kore kara no kekkon wa kono yo ni, 1942, page 8).[30]

Sarah: So while a lot of the theory, policy, and practice of eugenics in Japan comes down to reproduction and controlling sex, in the course of constructing these ideas, the Japanese are also forging new ideas about blood, race, and Japanese identity. Before the 17th century, blood was unclean — specifically menstrual blood, so, basically women were unclean. This was a nice way for women to be excluded from most public spaces and for upper class women in particular to be sort of squirreled away. This blood misogyny has lonnnnnng tentacles on the status of women in Japan, well after the Taisho period, and well after the Americans rewrote the Japanese constitution in 1948. Women, for example, were not recognized as Japanese nationals on their own, or as purveyors of Japanese citizenship until 1985. A woman takes up / absorbs the citizenship of her husband. A Japanese woman who had a child out of wedlock before 1985 was not considered Japanese itself unless a Japanese daddy claimed it. Yes, I know. I too am angry about this. But all is better now. Still rampant sexism, but at least they addressed that issue in 1985.

Averill: Because there was this long-standing association of blood and uncleanliness/femininity, blood itself was not really conceived of as a defining trait of family or inheritance; adoption was widespread and common in Japan right up through the 20th century, particularly when a family needed a male heir to pass inheritances down to. They’d just find any old boy child, and ta-da, healthy male heir.

Sarah: It’s not until the Tokugawa period that ideas about “pure-bloodedness” and citizenship began to take shape. Japan is currently a nation established on jus sanguinis. This means that nationality is passed down through blood. In the US, nationality is both jus sanguinis and jus soli, meaning if you are born on US soil, you are automatically an American citizen. This is not the case in Japan. Naturalization is possible, but difficult, and really, it is up to parentage, or blood. Until 1985, it was up exclusively to your patrilineage.

Averill: Blood had, by the 1930s, taken on a whole new dimension in Japan. It did not wholly shed its earlier negative associations, but was also part of a new language and discourse of race, “good” marriage and reproduction, public health, and Japanese imperialism.

Sarah: Karl Landsteiner, a Viennese biologist, is credited with identifying the four blood types in 1909, building of a couple of decades of attempting to understand why people got sick with transfusions of some kinds of blood but not others. Like genetics, this new scientific information was absorbed by Japanese scientists, but also like genetics or pathology or whathaveyou, did not stop in laboratories.

Averill: According to one source, the first linking of blood type to temperament in Japan was in 1916, when Kimata Hara, published a research paper purporting to link blood group with temperament. In 1927, Takeji Furukawa, a psychologist (and as evidenced by the number of psychologists published in the popular eugenics magazines, apparently their opinions were highly valued in Japan) published a paper titled “The Study of Temperament Through Blood Type.” He based his “findings” on a study of eleven of his family members, in which he assessed their personality types and then linked those to their blood types. Less than twenty-years after Landsteiner introduced the blood types, this wildly unprovable pseudoscience emerged in Japan.

A graph that depicts how blood type is passed from generation to generation
An illustration of how blood type is passed through generations
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: German eugenicists, too, embarked on a range of experiments having to do with blood and culture. Certainly the entire concept of Jewishness as a racial, blood-carried condition is rooted in the same sort of “scientific” thinking.

Averill: And like (but also not like, because to be clear, the Japanese didn’t commit a genocide against Type Bs, though some eugenicists advocated for their sterilization, that didn’t make it into the final National Eugenic Law) German eugenics, this blood-type discrimination gained legs of its own. In the early 1930s, the Japanese government tried to see if this crazy theory had any bearing on real life – unsurprisingly, their research on soldiers / blood types / temperaments proved completely useless and unproductive – but still, government officials, employers, and courtship rituals were predicated on “desirable” and “undesirable” blood type candidates for every social and professional interaction.

Sarah: The ‘theory’ (or, probably better, myth) was repopularized by a journalist with no medical background in the 1970s, with the publication of Understanding Affinity by Blood Type (1971) which became a bestseller, followed by Blood Type Humanics (1973). I wish, WISH, that I could have found English translations of either of these texts, but also, I could not. The journalist (again, like the editors of the major eugenics journals who also were effectively the leaders of the public health initiatives, marriage counseling centers, etcetera) relied on the flawed study from 1927, but still made lots of money and preyed on a stereotype that was became really quite popular.

Resurgence of Blood-Type Discrimination

Averill: It died down by the 1990s, but we’re back in a resurgence of this fad today. This has, we cannot stress enough, no scientific or statistically significant basis, any more than astrology or racial stereotypes. According to one report, discrimination is so bad in Japan today that the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare had to include a statement about NOT asking people their blood type in a job interview in their “Guideline to a Fair Employment Selection Self-Inspection” because employers were assuming the worst of B and AB candidates. Politicians like Ryu Matsumoto blame their bad behavior on their own blood type. After making inappropriate comments in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, he said “My blood’s type B, which means I can be irritable and impetuous, and my intentions don’t always come across. My wife called me earlier to point that out. I think I need to reflect about that.”

Sarah: In in 2007, the Guide to Yourself Based on Blood Type sold 5.4 million copies in Japan. In pop culture, blood type horoscopes are discussed on morning talk shows, there are countless television, anime, and film plot lines that center around bad relationships with “Bs,” like the Korean rom-com My Boyfriend is a Type B. And while Type Bs are believed to be unpredictable, passionate but irresponsible, Type As and Os are lauded. The Japanese were confident in the promise of former Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka when he joined the American team in 2006 with a $100 million contract, because he is a Type O — a “warrior” in the blood typology.

Averill: It’s fascinating. But ultimately the point is that this pseudoscience of blood type personalities is a product of Japanese modernization — both of its “Westernization” and “Japanization.” Like the other eugenic policies — many of which are still part of the Japanese law code today — the “science” behind blood type personalities was forged at the crossroads of the invention of a Japanese race, the changing conceptualizations of “blood,” and the popularization of eugenic ideas in various publications and public discourses. And hopefully as this episode has communicated, this kind of thing doesn’t just happen. It’s a process. It’s socially constructed. And if a blood-type personality horoscope can be invented, it can be dismantled. Knowing the history of these issues, how they intersect with other histories – of oppression, of racism parading as progress, of imperialism, and the like – is one step forward in finding a better way to relate to and treat one another.

Extra points of discussion:

  • What’s happening in Japan in the 70s and 2000s that might make these ideas so popular?
  • “Eugenics” doesn’t have a negative connotation in Japan. There is still a National Eugenic Law, though they, thoughtfully, recently struck the clause about preventing the production of “unfit offspring.”
  • Good news: you can finally learn about your affinities and shortcomings per your blood type, and you don’t even have to read the 1970 Understanding Affinity through Blood Type or the Takeji Furukawa’s 1927 “The Study of Temperament Through Blood Type.” Just zip over to org and journey through self-realization.

Sign off: Thank you, as always, for listening. If you have a minute, please leave us a rating and review on iTunes or where ever you get your podcasts – those 5 star ratings and warm and fuzzy words help other people find us.

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Thanks again, we hope you enjoyed this one, lots more eugenics to come. Bye!


Rachel Nuwer, “You are what you Bleed: In Japan and other east Asian countries some believe blood type dictates personality,” Scientific American (11 Feb 2011)

“In Japan, you are what your blood type is,” NBC News (1 Feb 2009)

Natalie Zarelli, “The Positive and Negative Sides of Japan’s Obsession with Dating by Blood Type,” Atlas Obscura (10 March 2016)

Mari Yamamoto, Jake Adelstein, “Un-True Blood: Japan’s Weird Taste for Discrimination Against ‘Type Bs’,” Daily Beast (29 May 2017)

Ardath Burks, The Modernizers: overseas students, foreign employees, and Meiji Japan, (Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 1985);

Yuehtsen Juliette Chung, “Better Science and Better Race?: Social Darwinism and Chinese Eugenics,” Isis 105:4 (December 2014), 793-802.

Yuehtsen Juliette Chung, Struggle for national survival: eugenics in Sino-Japanese contexts, 1896-1945, (Psychology Press, 2002)

Elizabeth Eder, Constructing opportunity: American women educators in early Meiji Japan, (Lanham, Md. : Lexington Books, 2003).

Francis Galton, “Hereditary Talent and Character,” Macmillan’s Magazine, vol. 12, 1865  pp. 157-166

H.J. Jones, Live machines: hired foreigners and Meiji Japan, (Vancouver : University of British Columbia Press, 1980)

Masae Kato, Women’s Rights? The Politics of Eugenic Abortion in Modern Japan (Amsterdam University Press, 2009).

Morris Low, Building a Modern Japan: Science, Technology, and Medicine in the Meiji Era and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Sumiko Otsubo, “Eugenics in Imperial Japan: Some Ironies of Modernity, 1883-1945,” Dissertation School of the Ohio State University (1998)

Sumiko Otsubo, “Between Two Worlds: Yamanouchi Shiego and Eugneics in Early Twentieth-Century Japan,” Annals of Science 62:2 (April 2005) 205-231.

Sumiko Otsubo, “Feminist Maternal Eugenics in Wartime Japan,” US-Japan Women’s Journal, English Supplement, 17 (1999) 39-76.

Ed. Donald Shively, et al, Tradition and Modernization in Japanese Culture, (Princeton University Press, 1971)

Rebecca Suter, The Japanization of Modernity: Murakami Haruki between Japan and the United States, (Harvard University Asia Center, 2008).

Jennifer Robertson, “Blood Talks: Eugenic Modernity and the Creation of New Japanese,” History and Anthropology 13:3 (2002) 191-216


[1] See H.J. Jones, Live machines: hired foreigners and Meiji Japan, (Vancouver : University of British Columbia Press, 1980); Ardath Burks, The Modernizers: overseas students, foreign employees, and Meiji Japan, (Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 1985); and Elizabeth Eder, Constructing opportunity: American women educators in early Meiji Japan, (Lanham, Md. : Lexington Books, 2003).

[2] Ed. Donald Shively, et al, Tradition and Modernization in Japanese Culture, (Princeton University Press, 1971) 3; see also Rebecca Suter, The Japanization of Modernity: Murakami Haruki between Japan and the United States, (Harvard University Asia Center, 2008).

[3] Yuehtsen Juliette Chung, Struggle for national survival: eugenics in Sino-Japanese contexts, 1896-1945, (Psychology Press, 2002) 35.

[4] Francis Galton, “Hereditary Talent and Character,” Macmillan’s Magazine, vol. 12, 1865  pp. 157-166

[5] Jennifer Robertson, “Blood Talks: Eugenic Modernity and the Creation of New Japanese,” History and Anthropology 13:3 (2002) 191-216; 197.

[6] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 198.

[7] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 62.

[8] Chung, “Struggle for national survival,” 62. Chung’s goal is to provide a comparative framework for Chinese and Japanese eugenics, to show how they influenced each other (mostly Japan → China) and how they were entangled by the SIno-Japanese war of 1936, which both sides engaged in for issues of “population.”

[9] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 196.

[10] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 197.

[11] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 24.

[12] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 35.

[13] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 38.

[14] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 17.

[15] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 18.

[16] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 70-86.

[17] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 93.

[18] Roberts, “Blood Talks,”196.

[19] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 17.

[20] Sumiko Otsubo, “Eugenics in Imperial Japan: Some Ironies of Modernity, 1883-1945,” Dissertation School of the Ohio State University (1998) 55.

[21] Otsubo,  “Eugenics in Imperial Japan,” 60.

[22] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 201.

[23] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 201.

[24] Chung, Struggle for national survival, 1.

[25] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 201-206.

[26] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 194.

[27] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 193.

[28] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 202.

[29] Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 203.

[30] Reproduced in Robertson, “Blood Talks,” 204.


Mercy · October 8, 2020 at 11:35 am

Hello Dig team,
Just discovered you, and am enjoying going through all your podcasts. Thank you!

    Elizabeth Garner Masarik · November 1, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks for listening!! We appreciate you.

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