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Monday, January 21, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 13 - The Parasite Museum

First of all, I apologize for the three month hiatus.  As I've mentioned before, life took a weird, hard left turn on me in the final months of last year and I'm just now climbing back out of it.

Many of you who followed the blog wanted me to continue the Exploring Japan series.  When things came to a halt last year, I was probably about halfway through all of the interesting topics I had lined up.  So with that, I'm picking up where I left off, however after you read this post, you may want to be careful what you wish for next time.  

Tokyo has many amazing museums, most of which either offer English translations at each exhibit or some form of translation service.  There's even one we'll talk about in a later post that offers free translators who will walk with you and answer all of your questions.  While many of the museums are focused on art or history, there are a handful of strange ones here and there.  One of the strangest is 100% free to visit.

It's the Meguro Parasitological Museum in the Meguro neighborhood of Tokyo.  It's tucked away among a number of nondescript buildings on the street pictured below and you'd likely walk right by it if you weren't looking.  However, inside are some of the most interesting and (frankly) disgusting sights you will ever see.  

The museum is part of a private research facility that was founded in 1953.  Currently, they exhibit about 300 parasite specimens over two floors.  It's not a large museum, but there is A LOT crammed in here. 

Now you may ask yourself why would a parasite museum exist in Tokyo at all?  Well, the study of parasites and their effects on animals and humans had a direct effect on the quality of life for many people in Japan in the early 1900's.  A doctor named Akira Fujinami made it his life goal to study a parasite that affected major portions of rural Japan.  In those areas, as many as 30% of the people carried the bug.  It's latin name is Schistosoma Japonicum, and it's something called a "blood fluke".  

If you've ever seen a picture like the one below, you've likely seen a victim of this nasty little creature.

What drew Dr. Fujinami to focus on parasites was when he found one of the flukes while conducting an autopsy on an infected victim.  He started to question how it got into its host and in an experiment designed to determine the parasite's life cycle, he arranged for 17 uninfected calves to range in the paddy fields and rivers in an area of Katayama where they knew the parasite existed.  He divided the calves into groups.  On 6 of them, he covered their mouths.  He covered the legs of 7 others.  He allowed 2 to roam free with no cover and the final 2 he kept in the barn all the time.  

What he found was that all of the calves without the leg covers became infected. Through further study, he found that snails in the area were the intermediate hosts and that part of the key to wiping out the parasite was to eradicate the snails.  

Between the time of this discovery in 1918 and 1950, the number of infected patients and deaths dropped from 2,500 to almost 0.

The museum serves as a place to both honor the man's research and also open people's eyes to the vast number of crazy, creepy, crawly things you may not even realize are out there.

Now, I'm not going to lie to you.  There are some seriously gross things here.  For instance:

A sea turtle head with a parasite growing right out of its mouth.

The largest tapeworm ever pulled out of a human being.

There's even a tape measure you can extend to get a better understanding of just how long that thing is.  I'm holding the other end and am standing across the room and still can't pull it tight.

There seems to be no end to all the horrific specimens on display and trust me when I tell you that there are some pretty awful pictures of what these things can do.  As we were looking at one particularly gruesome photo while trying to decipher a bit of kanji, we used our translation app and the following came up.

Let's just say the translation was correct.

So why come visit?  Well, it's definitely weird.  It's relatively easy to get to and it's extremely educational.  Sometimes, knowledge is uncomfortable.

Would I recommend visiting?  Absolutely!  If you read every single exhibit card, you could cover the entire thing in a little over an hour.  Do it in the morning and you'll have the rest of the day to forget all the horrible stuff you'll see.  At the very least, you'll never exit a bathroom without washing your hands again, and hey... the world can always use a bit of extra hygiene.

Next week, we'll shift gears and talk about tea plantations, sake brewers and sacred Buddhist statues that were once illegal.  You can find all of them in one town at the base of Mt. Fuji!

See you then!

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