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Drugs on Display in Japan: The Daiichi Sankyō Pharmaceutical Museum

Updated: Aug 29

by Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, Contributing Editor

Daiichi Sankyō is a pharmaceutical corporation based in Japan, with more than fifty offices around the world. In 2012, the company opened the Kusuri Myūjiamu [Pharmaceutical Museum] to showcase its century-plus history, successes, and future ambitions in drug development.


Upon arrival, the visitor is handed a large plastic button. The button is carried from station to station and placed on portals to activate auditory content. At the entry terminal, the visitor inputs some demographic information and selects a language for presentation (options include English, Japanese, and Chinese). The button subsequently activates speech in the language of choice for each subsequent display. Inasmuch as I appreciated the unique, almost futuristic design of the terminals, when a large number of patrons entered at once, the general noise level of the room rose to a point where the vocalization became almost inaudible.

The text of the exhibit is pitched at about the level of a Japanese middle-school biology course (which perhaps explains why most of the visitors I saw were schoolgirls in uniform, diligently filling out worksheets). Daiichi Sankyō emphasizes the scientific nature of its production process by inundating the viewer with chemical formulas and structures, experimental setups, and clips of researchers and pharmacists at work. The somewhat dry presentation is enlivened at points with interactive opportunities such as multiple-choice quizzes.

The main room, which evokes a scientific laboratory, is devoted to presenting drug discovery and development. Unsurprisingly given its sponsorship, the museum emphasizes the individual and social benefits of pharmaceutical products, while studiously avoiding any discussion of industry controversies. Nearly twenty stations cover topics such as the search for active agents in natural and manufactured ingredients, the medicinal chemistry of pharmaceutical design, clinical testing and the path to approval, manufacturing, and marketing. As a foreign visitor, I would have appreciated more information on the particularities of drug regulation in Japan, compared to Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.


One particularly interesting terminal allows visitors to compare the action and effects of various modes of drug delivery (liquids, pills, injections, etc.) as they travel through the body. Unfortunately, the exhibition neglects to consider consumption beyond the physiological level, failing to present any context on epidemiology or the national market. In fact, as I have observed during site visits to intoxicants museums around the world, the issue of consumption is almost never addressed. I continue to mull whether this lacuna derives from a lack of information (the problems of finding trustworthy sources on drug demand are familiar to all historians of intoxicants), a desire to minimize scrutiny of a potentially sensitive subject, and/or other factors.

From the perspective of a historian, the most interesting exhibit deals with pharmaceutical history. A wall-to-wall timeline tracks drug discovery and development and the emergence of Daiichi Sankyō. The origins of Japanese medicine are dated to about the beginning of the common era, when Chinese ideas and techniques were imported via Korea. However, the museum elides almost all mention of the Sinic tradition from subsequent centuries of premodern pharmaceutical development, instead focusing on European breakthroughs. Few contemporary historians of medicine would endorse this narrative, which privileges Western science as the sole root of contemporary practices.


Methamphetamine molecule

In the museum’s representation, Japan regains relevance following its encounter with Occidental medicine in the late nineteenth century. At this time, the Japanese government determined to prevent colonization by the great powers of Europe and the United States by modernizing, Westernizing, and industrializing as quickly as possible. Given the readily apparent significance of scientific medicine to the cultivation of a strong and healthy population (capable of serving in the new conscript military), pharmaceuticals came almost immediately to the attention of policymakers. The first generation of Japanese researchers worked mainly in laboratories in Germany, France, and the U.S., but by the 1880s the nation had acquired the ability to undertake cutting-edge science at home. The chemist Nagai Nagayoshi isolated ephedra, leading to the formulation of amphetamine and methamphetamine. His contemporary Takamine Jōkichi produced the enzyme takadiastase and the hormone adrenaline. These successes undergirded the rise of the modern Japanese pharmaceutical industry. In 1899, Sankyō Shōten, the forerunner of Daiichi Sankyō, began manufacturing digestion enzymes, adrenaline, and treatments for beriberi and syphilis. The company located its headquarters in Nihonbashi, which had for centuries served as one of the capital’s many merchant districts. The neighborhood remains the headquarters of the corporation to this day.

In notable contrast to its sustained attention to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the exhibit is conspicuously silent on the wartime activities of Daiichi Sankyō and the Japanese medical profession. The excision of the years from 1931 (when Japan invaded China, marking the beginning of fifteen years of military conflict) through 1945 (Japan’s defeat in World War II) is characteristic of many sponsored corporate histories, even to this day. Nonetheless, historians have linked pharmaceutical companies to such infamies as the circulation of methamphetamine among Japanese soldiers and civilians and the development of biological and chemical weapons.

Last year, I visited the German Museum of Pharmacy in Heidelberg ( Similarly to the Pharmaceutical Museum, this institution almost entirely avoids the topic of World War II. The only mention occurs in connection with the persecution of Jewish pharmacists, who were mostly forced to emigrate or were killed during the Holocaust. Perhaps intentionally, this discussion of victims distracts the viewer from unpleasant questions regarding the complicity of the wartime drug industry with Nazi atrocities. Until the global pharmaceutical industry engages honestly with unsavory episodes in its past, the history of the profession cannot be considered complete.

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