28 February 2023

The Japanese Red Cross Society: A Neglected History

The dominant narrative of the Red Cross Movement is based on the premise that humanitarianism crystallised in Europe under the Geneva Convention and was diffused to the rest of the world. In her master dissertation on the history of the Japanese Red Cross Society (1867–1919), Mayuka Miyagawa casts light on the endeavours of the individuals who established and developed the movement within and beyond Japan, and highlights that patriotism was only one of their motivations. Her findings, which she details in this interview, won her the 2022 Association Genève-Asie Prize and are now published in open access thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation.

Why did you decide to study the history of the Red Cross Movement in Japan?

Since the courses I took at the Graduate Institute broadened my horizons and opened avenues for exploring a wide variety of different themes, specifying a research topic for my dissertation was not an easy process for me. However, I eventually came to choose this topic because studying the history of “humanitarianisms” gave me the urge to explore how the concept has evolved in Japan – the country in which I had spent the majority of my life so far. As a person that wishes to pursue a career in the humanitarian sector, I wanted to learn more about the social and historical particularity that had shaped Japanese people’s desire to engage in humanitarian work in the past. I especially developed a keen interest in taking a deep dive into the history of the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) after learning about its well-trodden path and noticing some Eurocentric bias in the existing English literature. I owe special thanks to Julie Billaud, Davide Rodogno, Vincent Bernard and Claudia Seymour for having inspired me to work on this theme.

What were your thesis questions and methodology?

In pursuit of addressing the Eurocentric narrative of the Red Cross Movement and broadening the academic space to study the history of the JRCS, I asked the following questions:

  • In what political and social context did the Japanese elites establish the JRCS in Japan and develop the Red Cross Movement at the international level?
  • What were their motivations and sources of influence?
  • What did they achieve as a result?

To answer these questions, I examined primary sources preserved in the Red Cross archives (JRCS, ICRC and IFRC) as well as the National Diet Library in Japan. I also studied the autobiographies and memoirs of the protagonists to understand their experiences and motivations.

What are your major findings?

Shedding light on the protagonists’ endeavours and the historical context of the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century allows us to identify their profound initiative and perseverance in promoting the Red Cross work both at the national and international level. This calls into question the existing narrative of JRCS staff being used by high government officials that wanted to present the government as closer to the Western powers in its degree of civilization. My study also reveals how the JRCS was not only an offspring of the European movement but also a dedicated actor in creating a new stream in the Red Cross movement in the early twentieth century. Moreover, by contextualising the protagonists’ thought processes and life experiences, the study suggests that the patriotic motivation to promote the nationalistic agenda – as portrayed in the existing narrative – was not their sole motivation for establishing and developing the movement. Their motivation was also shaped by various needs to fulfil their locally nurtured desire and sense of obligation.

What are you doing now?

I am currently doing a communication internship at the ICRC delegation in Japan. I am also registered to Médecins Sans Frontières’s (MSF’s) human resource pool, waiting to be assigned to a field mission.

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Exploring the Overshadowed Streams of the Red Cross Movement: Endeavour and Motivation within and beyond Japan (1867–1919) was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Mayuka Tamura Miyagawa’s master dissertation in Development Studies (supervisor: Julie Billaud), which won the 2022 Association Genève-Asie Prize.

How to cite:
Miyagawa, Mayuka Tamura. Exploring the Overshadowed Streams of the Red Cross Movement: Endeavour and Motivation within and beyond Japan (1867–1919). Graduate Institute ePaper 46. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2023.

Banner picture: part of a genealogical tree showing the Development of the Red Cross. Développement de l’oeuvre de la Croix-Rouge, publié par le Comité International à l’occasion du 25ème anniversaire de la fondation de la Croix-Rouge 1863-1888, 1888. Copyright: ICRC ARCHIVES (ARR).
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.