Inventing Tropical Stupor: Earthquake and Psychiatry in Colonial Taiwan
This paper studies how colonial medicine and an environmental disaster together shaped a theory of psychological trauma in Taiwan during the 1930s. Under Japanese colonial rules, the psychiatrist Naka Syuzo (中脩三) of Taihoku Imperial University in Taipei and his students examined post-traumatic symptoms among 389 Taiwanese patients following the deadly Shinchiku-Taichū earthquake of 1935. By comparing these cases using statistics to other clinical reports described in the German medical literature, Naka et al. concluded that the suffering of the Taiwanese patients was actually neurological rather than psychogenic in nature.
In these earthquake victims, symptom manifestation resembled what the German anthropologist and physician Erwin Baelz had earlier defined as Emotionslähmung, a type of psychogenic acute psychosis. During the late Showa period of Japanese history, Baelz was one of the most important medical figures who introduced Western psychiatric knowledge and practices into Japan, including the therapeutic function of onsen. In 1936, Naka and his team compared Emotionslähmung with World-War-One-era shell shock in Western Europe and argued that the symptoms of the Taiwanese people were associated with altered autonomic nervous system function and were influenced by the tropical weather. The story demonstrates the influence of statistics in validating racialized scientific theories in Japan’s colony. Naka’s unusual investigation also illustrates the historical effort of Japanese colonial psychiatrists and related scientific infrastructure to support the then popular discourse of tropical neurasthenia.
Photo Credit: Isa Kang/twmemory.org