Eating Way Too Much Rice Almost Doomed Japan's Imperial Navy

Eating Way Too Much Rice Almost Doomed Japan's Imperial Navy

Disease can bring down armies.

But the army dealt with its beriberi problem very differently than the navy did. The ground branch’s insistence on a microbiological cause led it to focus on sanitation—but all the sanitation in the world wouldn’t give their soldiers the dose of vitamin B1 they needed to survive.

The answer was so plain to see that the solution to the army’s beriberi problem actually developed from the bottom-up. Civilian prisons had been mixing barley with rice since 1875.

Toshikuni Horiuchi, chief medical officer of the Army’s 4th Division in Osaka, was initially skeptical of Takaki’s successes, but took interest in the exceptional changes brought on by adding barley to the diets of prisoners.

After petitioning his commanding officer, in autumn 1885 Horiuchi directed the 8th Infantry Regiment to mix barley with its rice. The rest of the 4th Division followed suit by 1886. Other units joined in.

Barley and rice became the unofficial diet of much of the army in peacetime. Thanks to the army freeing the hands of its commanding officers, beriberi contraction rates dropped from 26 percent in 1885 to four percent in 1887. The rates stayed below two percent until the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 and 1895.

During the war, the official rice staple overrode the unofficial use of barley. For the duration of the war, the navy was beriberi-free, but the army lost 4,000 soldiers to the disease, with another 41,000 hospitalized. Some individual commanders chose to add barley to their men’s diets, thus saving lives.

Under attack by navy doctors, the Army Medical Bureau struck back with an article published under a pseudonym. “The army does not need traditional medicine, statistical speculation or 1,890-year-old theories to solve its beriberi problem,” the article stated. “It needs scientific knowledge based on experimental medicine.”

Stubborn and blind to the truth, the army was marching towards its biggest beriberi disaster ever.

Twenty years after Takaki had eradicated beriberi from the navy, Japan faced Russia in the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905. The army hospitalized 250,000 soldiers with beriberi, 27,000 of whom died. The shocking toll ended the army’s resistance. In the middle of the war in February 1905, Gen. Masatake Terauchi ordered the army to mix barley with its rice.

After the war, the Emergency Beriberi Investigative Committee investigated the disease’s devastation of Japanese ranks. Worried about the composition of the committee and fully aware of Takaki’s success, the emperor stepped in. “The army’s beriberi problem can be effectively prevented if the army provides a staple of barley and rice,” the emperor stated.

In December 1885, Takaki rose to become surgeon-general of the navy then, in 1888, Japan’s first doctor of medical science. Gaining the title of baron in 1905, he also earned a nickname—“the barley baron.”

In lectures published by the British Lancet medical journal in 1905, Takaki discussed his battle against the establishment view in a way that the army probably would have understood. “All through these years of hardships, I tried to explain my views to others by comparing the food to gunpowder,” the barley baron explained.

“I said that the former is the primary force of the human body as is the powder in the case of the gun, so it is just as important to select the food suitable for sailors as the powder for guns and rifles.”

Image: Wikipedia.