Behind the tattooed skins, severed arms and rat skeletons in a university lab rests the world’s only collection of famous brains, left to posterity by some of Japan’s greatest thinkers.
Each of the 120 brains of prime ministers, novelists, artists and scholars has its own container, something like a fish tank, in the University of Tokyo’s medical department.
Scientists there hope to gain some insight into what makes the brains of famous people special.
“We’d like to get many more,” said Yutaka Yoshida, curator of the collection. “I’d especially like to get brains from mathematicians, musicians and singers.”
The collection was begun in 1913, when the family of Taro Katsura, a three-time prime minister, asked that his brain be preserved for study after his death. The most recent acquisition is the brain of former Prime Minister Takeo Miki, who died in 1988.
So far, the deep-rooted reluctance among Japanese to tamper with the dead has ensured that the museum’s resources far outweigh its ability to use them.
“We try, as far as possible, not to cut them,” Yoshida said. “We want to keep them in their original shape.”
University researchers have cross-sectioned several brains to allow some visual and microscopic comparisons. Most are undisturbed, however, immersed in amber formaldehyde, gleaming palely behind small handwritten cards giving the names and special qualities of their original owners.
Yoshida is a slight, quiet man with 13 years of experience in the lab, which also has diseased selections of human anatomy and wall-hangings of tattooed skins donated by men who wanted to have their body art preserved.
As curator, he has renewed efforts to learn from the collection of famous brains.
The brain of Hisashi Hamaguchi, an eloquent prime minister assassinated in 1931, looks about the same as that of Natsume Soseki, a famous novelist who died in 1916, or of Yasuko Miyake, a writer who provided the only female brain in the collection.
“Researchers say the fibers in the part of Hamaguchi’s brain that controls speech are very complex, very special,” he said, referring to a part of the left hemisphere that regulates speech and other motor functions in right-handed people.
“You can’t do much research, just looking at the outside of the brains,” Yoshida said. “We’re obviously going to have to start doing histological (microscopic tissue) studies in the future.
Yoshida says some Japanese would protest such studies.
“Somehow, I think the Japanese would want to keep the famous brains the way they are now,” he said. “They wouldn’t like to have them laying around on lab benches.”
Many universities keep frozen or preserved brains for research purposes, but none has a collection of geniuses, Yoshida said.
The Tokyo collection resulted from a preoccupation with the differences between Asians and Caucasians, men and women, geniuses and average people, that emerged during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan began in earnest to study Western science and technology.
Eventually, Japanese medical researchers began to study brains, with some controversial results. The brains of some famous people, they found, were heavier than those of less distinguished thinkers.