Cholera: Disease, Nation, and Identity?

I’ve been looking at disease patterns in the early stages of the USAMGIK occupation, focusing on the cholera outbreak of spring and summer 1946, covering roughly April to September of that year, and peaking with the summer rains in June and July. I’m still not certain that a single disease identity is the correct frame, as there was some question of translation in the Japanese context–this according to Crawford Sams, with GHQ PHW (Public Health and Welfare)–and a number of competing disease entities as well, typhus primary among these.

In any case, leaving the question of identifying a disease entity aside for the moment, the patterns of quarantine and policing established by both USAMGIK and GHQ contain numerous interesting overlaps with previous policy. For one, the movement of repatriated ethnic Koreans back to Japan for a variety of reasons in 1946 and 1947–family property left behind, seeking to return to work in Japan, allegations of black market activity–meant that this group, along with Taiwanese, rapidly became identified with the disease itself in the Japanese press. There’s already a good bit of scholarship on this point–e.g., both Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Christopher Aldous have published on migration controls and disease policy (typhus) in Japan–indicating that the outbreak of cholera tended to reinforce existing prejudices and beliefs about ethnic Koreans.

Within Korea, the disease created the conditions for a mobilization based upon the introduction of “Western” medicine to a greater extent than had previously existed. That is, food controls, restrictions of the use of “night soil,” controls over sources of potable water, survey of animal populations, and even restrictions regarding large public gatherings (including funerals) were all among the practices put into effect to try to limit the spread of cholera, generally passed along by contaminated food or water sources. I have yet to find any local medical records (still working largely from USAMGIK bulletins here and Korean newspaper accounts), but it’s fair to speculate that this general policy felt a lot like Japanese policy regarding public health for much of the 1920’s and 1930’s. And the use of “local area doctors” (USAMGIK’s term for certain groups of TKM practitioners, although again, the translation issue is not always clear) meant that practitioners of traditional Korean medicine were enrolled as a last line of defense in terms of reporting the spread of disease. As both Park YunJae (Yonsei) and Shin Dong-Won (KAIST) have written about the reliance upon traditional practitioners fifteen to twenty years earlier, there’s considerable room here for speculation about how these new policies were received.

Finally, the disease did not respect boundaries, and two further problems added to the complex situation. One, the movement of Japanese forces and ethnic Koreans, primarily from North (Manchuria) to South (the DMZ, with some destined for Pusan) across the border rendered the migrations controls ineffectual. This was also the case for Southern Japan, where individuals could cross by boat into Japan unorbserved. Two, the lack of reliable information and communication with the Russians / Northern representatives only exacerbated the situation.
I still don’t know exactly what to do with this information collectively, except to note that it has a lot to do with the “national style”–itself a problematic label–that South Korea would later adopt with respect to medical practice, and to recognixe that the polciing aspect of public health definitely continued beyond the colonial period into the occupation and the subsequent formation of new states.


  1. Even if USAMGIK/GHQ practice was similar to Japanese practice, aren’t both “periods” two parts of one period in world practice beginning in the late 19th Century when Scientific medicine and administrative health care practices became a global norm, in terms of William H. McNeill’s epidemiological perspective of human development in “Plagues and Peoples”? Are you defining a range of, for lack of a better term, “good” and “bad” practices as illustrated by these episodes?

  2. Hi,

    I like your appeal to McNeill, but the book is slightly over thrity years old now (1976) and its sweep is celebratory,
    lacking the specifics of health p0olicy and its differential impact in different parts of the world.

    Let’s say for example I accept your broad category of “scientific medicine” for the moenth, and look at
    just Korea / South Korea historically. You’ll find such appeals made by the (1) Japanese Colonial health
    authorities; (2) USAMGIK and follow-up Korean War-era actors (including UNKRA, ICA (Minnesota Project), SIDA (Sweden);
    and the Park government in the 1960’s (Family Planning, Population Council and Rockefeller support) and 1970’s (the
    first inklings of health insurance). In almosat every case, the appeal is the same: we’re bringing “scientific
    medicine” where there is none. The reality is that the rhetoric is an old one, but the practice and access to health
    care vary widely–ask the ROK government even today if health care is good in the Southwest, or ask WHO if health
    care is truly “global.” I’m exaggerrating here, I know, but I want you to realize that Mcneill is making an
    argument specific to Western Europe, or so I would argue.

    In any case, I would not use evaluative language, but rather look at material practices and mobilization efforts.
    I’m trying to follow TKM practitioners into the mid-1960’s, as these guys were both celbrated (repositoires of
    “traditional” practice) and marginalized (placed in medical museums, but not respected as practitioners) under
    both Rhee and Park.

  3. John, thanks so much for posting this. I think it is great you are taking a closer look at the cholera outbreak of 1946. I kept thinking that it is really a topic worth looking into when I saw how all the newspapers, of all political leanings, covered it heavily for almost half a year in ’46. I have always wondered if the outbreak, combined, of course, with the food issues already frequently mentioned, contributed to the unrest of September to November of that year.

    Youngsoo Kim (has written on the Frog – Japan blog), a Phd student over at Tokyo U has looked a lot at Cholera outbreaks in Japan and Korea going back as far as Meiji and I think her masters thesis was on Japanese responses to the outbreak in Yokohama.

    I look forward to reading the outcome of your research on this!

  4. Hi,

    Wow-didn’t realize that cholera could still draw a response–but glad to hear that there’s lots more out there.

    Yes, I have also wondered about tying it in with the political turmoil (food, disease, hygiene, attacks on police boxes)
    of the time, particularly in terms of perceptions of increased policing / scrutiny associated with the quarantine regime.

    In any case, yes, I’d love to know more, and will be in touch offline. Just a last point, you also mention scholarship on
    Japanese side. Everything I’ve seen published thus far (with the exception of Park Yunjae for the colonial period and
    Shin Dong-Won who goes back to the 18th c for cholera) for this time period and disease is on the GHQ / Japan side, and
    almost nothing appears for the Korean side.

    I’m wondering if it’s simply a case of Koreanists catching up on the USAMGIK side, or if it’s too
    “messy” for any of a number of reasons–

  5. I was taking a road trip in the early 1980s and was traveling via bus. Somewhere near Mokpo the bus was stopped and everybody vaccinated (with a single needle!) – apparently we were going through a cholera zone. Thankfully I was able to tell them that I had already been vaccinated.

  6. My opinion on cholera disease is sad and depressing.It is sad that they have to drink unsanitary water because it’s all they have to drink, and because some of them are unware that the river,s of creeks they are drinking out of is the main reason they have these syptoms from the disease cholera.

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