The German Doctor in Meiji Japan

Society Culture

Japan and Germany celebrated the 150th anniversary of their diplomatic ties in 2011, and this milestone has helped draw attention in recent years to the history of academic exchanges between the two countries. One particular historical topic, always mentioned, is the arrival in Japan of government advisors, teachers, and other specialists from Germany (and other Western countries) during the Meiji era (1868–1912).  These Germans contributed to Japan’s modernization during that era in a wide variety of fields, serving as pioneers for the sort of dynamic academic exchanges between Japan and Germany that have continued to the present day.

Perhaps the best known of all the German specialists who came to Japan is Erwin Bälz (1849–1913), a physician who had a major influence on the development of medical science in Japan. In addition to teaching at the medical college of Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Medicine), Dr. Bälz is also famous for serving as the personal physician to the Meiji Emperor and to the crown prince, who later became the Taishō Emperor.

The Image of Japanese Stoicism

Many of the Germans hired to work in Meiji Japan returned to Germany after their contracts expired, but Dr. Bälz ended up spending 29 years there. Separate from his work duties, he had a passionate interest in Japan, writing many articles and books on the country and its people. These works contributed greatly to the global image of Japan in a number of respects.(*1)

One example is his article on the Japanese view of life and death, “Ueber den kriegerischen Geist und die Todesverachtung der Japaner” (On the Japanese People’s Military Spirit and Disregard for Death), which appeared in a German newspaper in 1904, against the backdrop of the Russo-Japanese War. Dr. Bälz died in 1913 but that essay was later republished during the period of close military ties between Japan and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, when both countries were glorifying war. The essay was issued under the abridged title, “Ueber die Todesverachtung der Japaner” (Japanese People’s Disregard for Death), prominently evoking the image of the fearless samurai. During the Nazi era, the essay was republished to encourage Germans to follow the stoic example of Japan, its ally of the time, although the ideas of Dr. Bälz, who loathed dictatorial rule, were not at all compatible with the ideology of the Nazi regime.(*2)

Early Popularizer of Jūdō in Germany

Dr. Bälz is also known as the first person to introduce Japanese martial arts to Germans. From his perspective as a physician, he noticed the medical benefits of practicing the martial arts and recognized the similarities they shared with the gymnastics popular in Germany at the time. He thought martial arts could help a person build a healthier body. The book Dr. Bälz published in 1906 after returning to Germany, titled Das Kano Jiu-Jitsu (Jiudo) (The Kanō Jigorō Style of Jujitsu [Jūdō]), contributed greatly to popularizing the sport in his native country, and the book is read by jūdō enthusiasts in Germany even today. In 2010, Bälz’s work “Über körperliche Erziehung” (On Physical Education) was republished as part of a book by German jūdōka and researcher Heiko Bittmann titled Erwin von Bälz und die körperlichen Übungen (Erwin Bälz and Physical Exercise).

Praise for Kusatsu Onsen

Introducing Japanese hot springs (onsen) to the world is another accomplishment for which Dr. Bälz is well known. In particular, he praised the medical benefits of hot-spring water from the Kusatsu Onsen resort, located in the town of Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture. Scientific research on Japanese hot springs began to flourish during the Meiji era. Dr. Bälz participated in this research, with a focus on Kusatsu, which he introduced to people outside Japan. He visited the resort in 1878. He described the spring’s waters in the following way in a September 1904 entry to his diary (published in English as Awakening Japan: The Diary of a German Doctor): “In addition to its unrivalled hot springs for baths, Kusatsu has the best mountain air in Japan and splendid water for internal use.”

Dr. Bälz also presented his findings on the benefits of the water at Kusatsu Onsen in German academic journals, but it was his famous diary—written in German and later published in Japanese and English—that led to Kusatsu becoming widely known around the world. Even today, the town’s residents revere Dr. Bälz, calling him the “benefactor of Kusatsu.” In 2000, which marked the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the town of Kusatsu, the Erwin Bälz Memorial Museum was opened there to teach younger generations about the doctor’s connection to the town.(*3)

The many achievements of Dr. Bälz arose from an academic world full of interaction between scholars and a university environment that was open to global interaction. It is important for Japan, which must rely on technology as its precious resource, to have in place the sort of open research setting in which outstanding scholars of Dr. Bälz’s caliber can thrive.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 25, 2012.)

(*1) ^ Many essays by Bälz were also published in the journal of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur—und Völkerkunde Ostasiens (OAG), the Tokyo-based scholarly association to which he belonged; and these German articles can still be viewed on the OAG website.

(*2) ^ Dr. Bälz’s attitude is clear from his diary, in which, even in the days of the German monarchy, he criticized the government of Emperor Wilhelm II as “dictatorial.”

(*3) ^ More information on Kusatsu Onsen is available on its official website.

history Judo Kano Jigoro Japan-Germany relations Erwin Bälz Japan-Germany Military Alliance Kanō Jigorō Kusatsu Onsen Sven Saaler Balz