A comparative study of the popularization of medical knowledge and information in Korea and Japan in the 17th to 19th centuries: Cultural mediums


Background: In the 17th to 19th centuries, Korea was centralized, ruled by the Joseon Dynasty. During this period, medical knowledge and information were mostly for the ruling class, led by the king. At the same time, Japan was centrally governed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, where a kind of local autonomy system, clan, was implemented that provided political and economic management, with medical knowledge and information managed differently by each clan. Moreover, the Japanese populace had risen socioeconomically and had interests positively in medical knowledge and information to get benefits. No comparative study has been conducted to determine the unfolding of medical knowledge and information in Korea and Japan from the 17th to 19th century. Accordingly, the purpose of this study was to conduct a comparative analysis of the dissemination and popularization of medical knowledge and information in this period via medical books and literary works depicting medical practices. Method: This study compared books on medicines and literary works from Korea and Japan that mention doctors, medicines, disease names, and prescriptions in order to popularize medical knowledge and information in each country. The rationale for understanding medical culture between two countries was based on the rapid distribution, consumption, and popularization of medical knowledge and information via cultural mediums since the 17th century. Results: In Korea and Japan, books on medicine were popularized among each country’s populace. The medical institutions of the Joseon Dynasty were established by the state from the late 14th century. In contrast, Japanese medical institutions for the general population started to emerge much later, in the 19th century. Medicinal books from the 17th to 19th century in Korea and Japan are similar in that they were gradually and easily changed readable for the populace. In addition, whereas the Joseon Dynasty conducted medicinal research nationwide, with knowledge and information about medicine spread to the populace, the populace did not show initiative on herbal medicine or medicine-related groups as much over the same period compared to the populace in Japan. It was found in the literature that Japanese doctors in the Edo period were mostly nurtured through private schools and gained success and economic stability. In Korea, on the other hand, there were few literary works depicting medicine. This finding indicates that the state took the initiative to manage medical knowledge and information in the cultural mediums of Korea, and the populace did not feel the necessity to play an active role in disseminating medical knowledge and information. In the case of Japan, state-led medical knowledge and information was not disseminating over the same period, because they were led by the populace who were eager to get benefits through selling and disseminating medical goods and books. Therefore, it seems that the populace published several medical books in the process of actively producing and distributing medical knowledge and information. Discussion: By comparing the medical knowledge and information of Korea and Japan in the 17th to 19th centuries through cultural mediums, we can see the different leading subject of medical knowledge and information. Japanese populace took initiative to disseminate the medical knowledge and information, while the Joseon state did. And we can also comprehend that it is useful to propagate medical knowledge and information, not just for the development of medicine but also to promote public health and a peaceful society. Furthermore, as is the case nowadays with spread of fatal viruses such as HIV and coronavirus, popularizing and sharing medical knowledge and information is of great use. Conclusions: In the 17th century, medical institutions were established in Korea, and medical books, medicinal herbs and medicines were distributed. In contrast, production and distribution of medical knowledge and information was led by the populace in Japan because the Tokugawa Shogunate was passive in producing and distributing medical knowledge and information, unlike the Joseon Dynasty. [Ethiop. J. Health Dev. 2020;34(Special issue-3):40-47] Keywords: 17th to 19th centuries, medical knowledge and information, cultural mediums, Korea, Japan