Hemato-nationalism: The Past, Present, and Future of "Japanese Blood" (english)

share on facebookprint/drucken
von Jennifer Robertson

In Japan citizenship is based on the principle of jus sanguinis. Naturalized citizenship is a possibility, but there is a tacit understanding at large that really real, or "pure," Japaneseness is qualified (and circumscribed) by "blood'' (chi, ketsu). Further, for many Japanese today, blood is understood in terms of blood type, which, despite its controversial serological history, prevails as a popular mode of horoscopy, match-making, and personality analysis.

Blood: Cute ...

In Japan today, cuteness is a major industry. Hello Kitty may be the best known ambassador of cuteness outside Japan, but within Japan she has dozens of rivals for that title, including Kenketsu-chan, the blood donation (kenketsu) mascots. The lead mascot, Chitchi, has her own homepage on the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare's website.
Chitchi herself has no blood type; instead, the blood groups are represented by her four spirit friends: Eitchi (A), Ōtan (O), Bibi (B), and Ebirin (AB). Curiously, and disturbingly, these four government-sanctioned characters have been given personalities that reinforce the wholly unscientific, and even discriminatory, but hugely popular practice of blood-type horoscopy in Japan. Eitchi, the spirit of type A, is in charge of publicity, is very responsible, and organizes everyone. The spirit of type O, Ōtan, summons and attracts people, and is always an energetic mood maker. Bibi, the honest spirit of type B, is resolutely tenacious, while Ebirin, the spirit of type AB, is in charge of nursing, being of a kind and caring disposition. The five blood-donation mascots share their island utopia with several other equally cute (kawaii) comrades who play important roles in the blood donation process.

Chitchi, the main blood-donation mascot, with her four blood-typed companions.

Kenketsu-chan's homepage and the various cartoon protagonists involved with blood donation collectively illustrate several key features that have characterized the biopolitics of blood in Japan since the late 19th century. These are the quasi-magical properties of "Japanese blood" and its personification through blood-type characterology and what I have coined the hematoarchipelagic construction of Japanese citizenship. The "cutesification'' of blood and blood type as personified by the five mascots apparently dates to 2003 when a law to secure a stable supply of blood products was implemented in cooperation with the Red Cross, which has been the entity responsible for blood collection since 1952. In 1990 the Ministry established the Blood Products Research Organization to coordinate the achievement of self-sufficiency in all blood products and to expedite the end of Japan's dependence on imported blood products. Following the precedent of commercial consumer advertisers, the Ministry has exploited the affective cogency of cuteness in order to promote among the general public not sales but important information and a spirit of volunteerism.

... cursed ...

The positive valence of blood and the familiar conviviality associated with blood donation are historically recent attributions. For most of Japan's 15 centuries-long cultural history, blood was a cursed and dangerous substance. Prior to the 17th century, blood was associated with death and symbolic pollution. In the form of menstruation, and mixed with fluids accompanying childbirth, blood was classified in Shinto and Buddhism as a "ritually dirty" substance that was especially harmful to males (Nishida 1995). In addition to banishing females from certain "sacred'' sites and spaces - a practice that continues today - males could avoid "blood poisoning" by undertaking Shinto purification rituals.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries blood gradually acquired a positive meaning of life force and lineage. With the promulgation of the first constitution in 1890 during the Meiji period (1868-1912), blood and specifically "paternal blood" became the main criterion of and for nationality and citizenship. Only in 1985 was "maternal blood" legally recognized as an equal agent. Nishida Tomomi surmised that the terms ketsuen (blood relationship), ketto (blood line), and ketsuzoku (blood relatives), indicative of an affirmative connotation of blood, were coined around the mid-19th century when they began to appear in a wide range of literary sources. Nishida also noted that in Japan, unlike in China, blood relations (qua heredity) per se were not especially privileged over other types of social intimacy, such as adoption, which has a long history in Japan as a pragmatic strategy of insuring household stability and continuity. Since the Meiji period, however, blood as a cipher of and for Japaneseness has been privileged.

... and congruous

Physician Hara Kimata's 1916 article in "Igaku Shinpoō" (Medical News) allegedly was the first in Japan to discuss the relationship between national-cultural temperament and blood type. Kimata had studied in Germany with the internist Emil von Dungern, who, in 1910 discovered, with the assistance of Polish serologist Ludwik Hirszfeld, the heritability of the A, B, O, and AB blood groups. Their research tracked the statistical distribution of blood-type groups along "racial" lines, and was informed in part by the nascent eugenics movement. Serologists like von Dungern and Hirszfeld believed in the alleged superiority of North and West Europeans, the majority of who were type A. Type B appeared to be more prevalent in South and East Asians. In the early 1920s, the Vienna-born American anthropologist Reuben Ottenberg proposed that the "races" of the world could be classified into six categories on the basis of blood types (European, Intermediate, Hunan, Indian-Manchurian, African-South Asian, and Pacific-American). He grouped the Japanese in the Hunan category along with the Southern Chinese, Hungarians, and Romanian Jews (Ottenberg 1925).

Ottenberg's groupings were challenged by the German-trained Japanese geneticist and physician Furuhata Tanemoto. Furuhata proposed that the Hunan category be relabeled Japanese-type (Nippongata). He insisted that the Japanese and central Europeans - minus the Jews - should form one group (Furuhata 1929; Hayashida 1976; Suzuki 1983). Furuhata's proposal garnered a lot of publicity in Japan but from all accounts was ignored by Ottenberg.
Particularly during the period of Japan's intensified imperialist aggression in Asia (1930-1945), Furuhata regularly authored or was cited in newspaper articles on topics ranging from practical information on blood donation to blood-type character analysis. Whereas the nationalization of Japanese blood was marked by the jus sanguinis criterion for citizenship in the Meiji Constitution (1890), the origins of the popular culturization of blood type are found in Furuhata's public relations efforts and especially in the sensationalistic publications and radio broadcasts of his contemporary, social psychologist Furukawa Takeji.

Blood Type and Temperament

Beginning in 1927, Furukawa zealously promoted the unscientific but now taken-for-granted notion of a connection between blood type and personality. Basically, he simplified prevailing scientific theories about the racial distribution of blood types and melded them with an eclectic mix of psychological concepts, a combination which proved seductive to the general public. Practical, albeit discriminatory, applications of Furukawa's thesis followed. In 1930, for example, a new blank for recording one's blood type was added to job application forms in the belief that such information would help to evaluate a candidate's employment potential. Even cities were characterized by the blood type of the majority of their residents. Thus high concentrations of Oand B-type blood made Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya "active'' cities whereas Kyoto, with high concentrations of Aand AB-type blood, was a "passive'' city. (Furukawa 1930; Maeda 1930; Okuda 2005; Saitō and Watanabe 1995).

Today, the notion that blood type determines temperament is even more popular than it was more than 70 years ago due to the efforts of the late journalist, Nomi Masahiko, who during the 1970s published 65 bestselling books that basically recycled Furukawa's thesis. After Nomi's death in 1981, his son Toshitaka continued the family's lucrative "blood business''; Toshitaka directed the Institute of Blood-type Humanics reorganized in 2004 as a nonprofit global organization, the Human-Science ABO Center.

Sanguinis Eugenics

By the 1930s, when Furukawa noted the relevance of blood type to the field of eugenics, the "wellborn science" was already deeply rooted in Japan. Coined by Francis Galton in 1883, the term eugenics quickly entered the Japanese vocabulary as the romanized yuzenikkusu and as the neologisms yū seigaku (science of superior birth) and jinshu kaizengaku (science of race betterment). These terms were used synonymously with two terms coined a little earlier: race betterment (minzoku/jinshu kairyō) and race hygiene (minzoku/jinshu eisei). Minzoku and jinshu, the two Japanese words for "race"' in both the social and phenotypical senses, for the most part were used interchangeably, although jinshu remains the more clinical, social-scientific term (cf. Rasse) and minzoku remains the more popular - and populist - term (cf. Volk). When prefixed with names, such as Nippon and Yamato, minzoku signifies the conflation of phenotype, geography, culture, spirit, history, and nationhood.

These semantic and semiotic inventions were part of the ideological agenda of the Meiji state and were incorporated into the postwar constitution of 1947, which retained the definition of nationality and citizenship as a right of blood. The interarticulation of the discourses of eugenics and blood was realized from the late 19th century onward.

Women's magazines were among the first popular venues for factual information about both subjects. Folklore about blood, blood types, and the history and present-day methods of blood transfusion were the subjects of an article published in "Aikoku Fujin" (Patriotic Women) in 1929. The author equated blood with life itself, noting in this context that the blood of a young person is popularly (and erroneously) referred to as shinsen na chi (fresh, pure blood) and that of an elderly person as kitanaichi (dirty or soiled blood) (Ōsako 1929).

"Pure-Blood" vs. "Mixed-Blood"

In Japan, the discourse of eugenics clustered around two essentially incommensurable positions concerning blood: "pure-blood" (junketsu) and "mixed-blood" (konketsu). Pundits favoring the pure-blood position were keen on preserving the eugenic integrity of what was, in their view, the pristine "Japanese race." Those promoting the mixed-blood position enumerated the eugenic benefits of hybrid vigor through the mixing of Japanese and non-Japanese blood (see Robertson 2001, 2002).

Concerns about mixed-blood marriages, first aired in the late 19th century in the context of nascent Japanese imperialism, continue today in other guises, such as in debates about citizenship and "international marriages." These ideologies of blood - both pure and mixed - were anchored in competing conceptions of the body and its phenotypic or outward characteristics.
The virtues of hybridity were again advanced during the heyday of Japanese colonialism in Manchuria by soldier, writer, and political theorist Ijichi Susumu.In an article published in 1939 Ijichi advocated for the intermarriage of Japanese males and "carefully selected" Manchurian females. He referred to his proposal as a "racial blood transfusion" (minzoku yūketsu), arguing that "mixing superior Japanese blood with inferior Manchurian blood would stimulate the development and civilization of inferior peoples by producing hybrid offspring who would mature as natural political leaders."

Ijichi's idea of "racial blood transfusion" was rebuffed by Tōgō Minoru, a bureaucrat, politician, and theorist of colonialism who had been an exchange student in Berlin. Tōgō's proposal for preserving the purity of Japanese blood formed the eugenic core of state policy on assimilation. He was especially concerned by the high percentage of mixed-blooded children in the Philippines, especially in the Davao region, where he claimed that more than 40% of the students in Japanese state-run schools were mixed-blooded. Tōgō cited various Euro-American scholars who called attention to the allegedly degenerative consequences of racial hybridization. Because, Tōgō argued, mixed-blooded offspring represented a "new race" (shinminzoku), miscegenation by definition could only fail to produce the objective of assimilation, namely "Japanization" (Nipponka). Furthermore, he asserted, mixed marriages between Japanese and non-Japanese Asians would effectively "dissolve the spirit or soul of the original Japanese race and national body." For Tōgō, miscegenation was a sure means of squandering a finite and valuable cultural resource: Japanese blood. His views both reflected and reinforced the dominant imperialist ideology of antimiscegenation coupled with purebloodedness.

Blood Talks

Inspired by the German Wandervogel and Czech Sokol physical fitness organizations, and with the support of leading politicians, scholars, physicians, and military officials, Ikeda Shigenori, founded Yūsei Undō (Eugenic Exercise/Movement Association) in 1926. Ikeda was profoundly committed to both maintaining and improving the quality and caliber of Japanese blood, and was committed to the welfare of girls and women - he earned degrees in women's studies and eugenics at Jena University in Germany as a reporter for the "Hō chi Shinbun", then one of the top dailies (Robertson 2002). In 1927, Ikeda crafted a "eugenics manifesto." As evident in the following excerpt, he alluded to blood as the agent that determines outward appearances (e.g., phenotype) and performances (e.g., kinship relations), and that materializes that which is unacknowledged (e.g., membership in an indissoluble hemato-national community): Blood talks (chi wa mono o iu). Japanese are, in the end, Japanese. Blood binds with blood. There is nothing that talks more substantively than blood.

Blood, according to Ikeda, is a substance that possesses irreversible and indissoluble binding properties and is a valuable resource that enables the vigorous continuity of Japanese society and culture. A contemporary and colleague of Furuhata and Furukawa, Ikeda's discursive construction of blood drew from the new science of blood types as well as from the metaphoric uses of blood by nationalists as a cipher for specifically modern ideas of disciplinary biopower.
Not to be underestimated in this context was the admiration he cultivated while in Germany for the cult of "blood and soil" (Blut und Boden) taken to extremes by the Nazis, and his essays and books on the Wandervogel and Hitler were advertised in his journal. Ikeda's invocation of the narrative agency of blood further helped to ensure its widespread use as a popular metaphor for shared heredity or shared ancestry, and even for the essential material imagined to constitute the "Japanese race."Today, as I noted, blood talks and even sings in the cutesified guise of the Kenketsu-chan mascots.

Blood and Performativity

As Ikeda discerned, blood talks, and in the course of talking, reflects and conveys the manner in which the Japanese have shaped their physical and metaphysical worlds, and have conceptualized fundamental and perduring assumptions about Japaneseness and otherness. In this sense, the expression "blood talks" can be productively understood as both a performance and a performative utterance.
"Performance at its most general and most basic level is a carrying out, a putting into action or into shape," either through an individual production or through a collection of practices (Maclean 1988; Kershaw 1992). Performance is something a subject or agent does, such as donate blood. Performativity, however - as Judith Butler (1993) and Don Kulick (2003) have elaborated in the context of gendering practices - is the process through which subjectivity or agency emerges or is realized. In a way, performance already incorporates a concept of performativity in that it involves turning something - blood - into something else, such as citizenship, a national body (kokutai), or a family state (kokka), perceived as unique or eugenically superior (e.g., Crane 2001).

The naturalization of something called Japanese blood as part of Japan's nationalistic modernization beginning the late 19th century helps to explain how blood donation came to constitute a "performative performance" of Japaneseness. Prior to the mid-1960s, virtually all blood donations were purchased from, largely, impoverished donors. When, in 1964, the US ambassador to Japan, Edwin Reischauer contracted hepatitis from a blood transfusion during emergency surgery after he was stabbed by a mentally ill Japanese youth, the Japanese government quickly adopted a resolution to promote the voluntary donation of blood from screened donors.

Since the scandal in the mid-1980s involving the use of unheated imported blood products infected with HIV, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, together with the Japanese Red Cross and blood donation Internet "clubs," such as, have made domestic self-sufficiency in the supply of blood an urgent goal. Implicit - and sometimes explicit, depending on the source - in the rhetoric of self-sufficiency is the assumption that Japanese blood is a unique and vital cultural resource that will ensure the future health of the otherwise resource-poor island nation.

Blood Donations Guidelines

The performative aspect of blood donation today is generated by two practices. One is the concept of affective bonding through voluntary blood donations, evident in such slogans as "Express your love by donating blood" (Tokyo Lions Club). In this case, voluntary blood donation is characterized as the key to the "development of a peaceful and delightful society" (Mitsuboshi 2000).The other practice involves the meticulous screening of donors, who must complete a detailed, nationally standardized questionnaire available only in Japanese. In addition to the explicit requirement that potential blood donors must be able to read Japanese - or have someone translate the document - information gathered about family history (which alludes to sexuality) may be used to sort candidates into "desirable donor" and "disqualified donor," and Japanese and non-Japanese categories. In short, the ideal of self-sufficiency in voluntarily donated blood seems both to implicitly re-enforce the century-old perception of blood donation as a right (and rite) of citizenship, and blood itself as an agent of Japaneseness.

The blood donation instructions in Japanese are very specific. The Japanese Red Cross specifies that a female donor must weigh at least 40 kilograms (80 pounds) and male donors at least 45 kilograms (99 pounds) - the minimum weight in the United States is 110 pounds for both sexes. As in the United States, persons with various acute and chronic illnesses, and males who have had sexual relations with other males, are ineligible, as are persons who have had their bodies tattooed or pierced within six months of donating blood. Also ineligible are those who have lived for between six months to five years since 1980 in countries spanning the European continent and parts of the Middle East. These restrictive measures are considered necessary to protect the safety of the national blood supply, and are really no different from the blood-donation eligibility guidelines in the United States, Australia, or many other postindustrial countries. What does distinguish the Japanese blood-donation guidelines from those followed today in the United States or Australia, however, is the tacit belief in the value and desirability of blood from "pure" Japanese.

So, what exactly is a pure Japanese anyway? As I discussed earlier, the adjective "pure" (jun) was used unabashedly during the period of Japanese imperialism and by early eugenicists who promoted the pure-blood position. But in popular parlance today - with the exception of xenophobic groups, such as the ultra-nationalist Junnihonjinkai (Association of Pure Japanese) - pure is most often defined by apophasis, that is, by enumerating what is not Japanese-like, from certain phenotypic features to an ignorance of Japanese or foreign-accented but fluent Japanese, all factors separate from the possession of a Japanese passport.

Alternatives to Blood Donation

In part as a solution to the diminishing supply of Japanese blood, scientists, led by Tsuchida Eishun of Waseda University, are developing a totally artificial or synthetic blood, which is being tested in laboratory animals and select human patients. Once certified - and an effective mass-production technique perfected - synthetic blood may occasion an end to blood donation, prescreening for diseases, blood group differentiation in stocks, and shortages of blood in the wake of big accidents and natural disasters. It is not clear from the current literature, whether Japaneseness is considered an integral part, or ideological metonym, of artificial blood. Tsuchida and his colleagues affiliated with the Society of Blood Substitutes founded in 1993, do however under- score the special needs in Japan for artificial blood, from the frequency of earthquakes to prob- lems associated with imported blood. Artificial blood is regarded as mukokuseki (nationality-less), thereby opening the possibility of universal donorship, although the primary motive for its invention is to secure a safe blood supply for the Japanese people and a potentially lucrative global market for Japanese companies.

Another new initiative is what might be called a hematological pan-Asianism. AsiaCORD was founded in 2000 to facilitate the collection and coordination of umbilical cord blood among Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Asano Shigetaka, president of both AsiaCORD and the Asian Hematology Association, views AsiaCORD as a means to promote "Asian harmonization." The rationale for AsiaCORD was premised on the ostensibly higher frequency of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) matching within Asian populations. However, a review of HLA-related articles in Tissue Antigens suggests that Asian is neither a definitive nor an exclusive category (e.g., Yang et al. 2006).


Blood is a raw material of limited availability and an increasingly scarce cultural resource, especially in its "pure" form - pure in the sense of free from pathogens, in the earlier eugenics-based sense as unmixed, and today, in the tacitly ethnocentric sense. Cultural resources are substances that convey how people shape their world and worldview, and thus the ongoing preoccupation with blood, in all of its registers and typologies, underscores the problems and challenges of defining just what constitutes Japaneseness.

With the promulgation of the first constitution in 1890 (and again in the postwar constitution of 1947), blood became the principal criterion of and for nationality and citizenship. Japan was an old state, but in the late 19th century it became a newly invented nation. For the first time, ordinary people were forced to transcend their local place affinities and to imagine themselves as members of a larger communal entity: the Japanese nation. Blood, and to a more limited extent blood type, was less a criterion of membership in a natal family and much more a measure of indissoluble nationality. It was, after all, the national family or family state (kazoku kokka) and not the nuclear family (ka, ke, ie) that has been sustained by "blood talks" since the Meiji period. Enfin, a compelling fiction of something called Japanese blood has been nurtured and sustained over a century by a multi-authored hemato-narrative.

This is the abridged version of an article featured in: Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness, 31:2, 2012, 93-112. Read the full text online here (PDF).


Butler, J. (1993): Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.

Crane, M. T. (2001): What was performance? Criticism 43(2):169-187.

Furuhata, T. (1929): A summarized review on the gen-hypothesis of the blood groups. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 13(1):109-130.

Furukawa, T. (1930): A study of temperament and blood-groups. The Journal of Social Psychology 1(4):494-509.

Hayashida, C. (1976): Identity, race and blood ideology of Japan. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington.

Kershaw, B. (1992): The Politics of Performance: Radical Theater as Cultural Intervention. London: Routledge.

Kulick, D. (2003): No. Language and Communication 23(4):39-51.

Maclean, M. (1988): Narrative as Performance: The Baudelairean Experiment. New York: Routledge.

Maeda, W. (1930): Ketsuekigata to wa nanika (2) [What is blood-type? (2)]. Asahi Shinbun, July 5:5.

Mitsuboshi, I. (2000): To secure blood donations by the blood donation promoting groups. International Workshop on Blood Program, Workshop 2.

Nishida T. (1995): "Chi"’ no Shisō - Edo Jidai no Shiseikan [Philosophy of "‘Blood": Conceptions of Life and Death in the Edo Period]. Tokyo: Kenseisha.

Okuda, Y. (2005): Ketsuekigata bangumi [Television programs on blood-type].

Ō sako G. (1929): Saikin sakan ni ō yō sareru yū ketsuhō [The blood transfusion method recently utilized widely]. Aikoku Fujin 571:1924.

Ottenberg, R. (1925): A classification of human races based on geographic distribution of the blood groups. Journal of the American Medical Association 84(19):1393-1395.

Robertson, J. (2001): Japan's first cyborg? Miss Nippon, eugenics, and wartime. Technologies of beauty, body, and blood. Body and Society 7(1):1-34.

Robertson, J. (2002): Blood talks: Eugenic modernity and the creation of new Japanese. History and Anthropology 13(3):191-216.

Saitō, T. and Y. Watanabe (1995): Furukawa Takeji no ketsueki kishitsu sō kansetsu no seiritsu o megutte [A review of the formative development of Furukawa Takeji’s theory of blood-type and temperament]. Seikaku Shinrigaku Kenkyū 3(1):51-65.

Suzuki, Z. (1983): Nihon no Yūseigaku - Sono Shisō to undō no Kiseki [Japanese Eugenics - The Legacy of Eugenic Thought and the Eugenics Movement]. Tokyo: Sankyo Shuppan.

Yang, G., Y. J. Deng, S. N. Hu, D. Y. Wu, S. B. Li, J. Zhu, B. F. Zhu, and Y. Liu (2006): HLA-A, -B, and -DRB1 polymorphism defined by sequence-based typing of the Han population in Northern China. Tissue Antigens 67(2):146-152.

Jennifer Robertsonis Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan (USA), and author of numerous articles. Her books include: Native and Newcomer: Making and Remaking a Japanese City (1991); Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan (1998); Same-Sex Cultures and Sexualities: An Anthropological Reader (2004); and A Companion to the Anthropology of Japan (2005), among others. Robertson is presently completing a new book on the intersection of eugenics, robotics, and national reinvention in Japan, supported by Guggenheim and Abe Fellowships. Contact: