Women giggle and men turn pale at the “Mysteries of the Human Body” exhibition at the Tokyo International Forum in Chiyoda Ward.
But unlike their counterparts in Europe, the people flocking to the exhibit here don’t appear to have any ethical worries as they take in the items on display.
The event, supported by such organizations as the Japanese Medical Association, aims to promote understanding about the human body and general health. It takes the rare approach of displaying real bodies and body parts, even allowing visitors to touch some of them.
The exhibition displays 16 fully dissected bodies and 160 body parts, including hearts, brains and digestive systems. One body is sliced into 2-cm-thick sections from the top of the head all the way down to its toes. Seven embryos are also on show.
“It’s so soft. . . . Not meaty at all!” exclaimed Yumi Katagiri, 24, as she inserted her finger in a body’s stomach.
“I was really curious (about the exhibit),” said her friend, Chifumi Magoshi, 23. “I didn’t want to miss it.”
Like these two, who came by themselves because their boyfriends wouldn’t dare, women seem to have less of a problem than men in dealing with the exhibit.
Takayuki Yoshida, 19, whose design school took him here to study human anatomy, said, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I feel sick.”
Reactions vary, but the exhibit has been extremely successful, said Masaharu Igarashi, a spokesman for the organizers.
“Since its launch in Osaka in March 2002, it has toured Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Nagoya before Tokyo. By the end of November, it attracted as many as 1.37 million visitors in total,” he said. “Roughly 70 percent were women.”
A spokesman for Tokyo International Forum agreed.
“Only one other exhibit held here, ‘Great British Inspirations’ in 1998, attracted more visitors than this one,” he said. “The figure of 300,000 visitors in 2 1/2 months, or 4,000 a day, is considered phenomenal even by ad agencies.”
This popularity has prompted organizers to keep the exhibit running to Feb. 1 instead of the end of December as initially planned.
The bodies on show have been preserved using a technique called “plastination,” in which all body fluids are replaced by plastic.
This is the second such exhibit in Japan. The first, which toured eight cities from 1995 through 1999 to commemorate the centennial of the Japanese Association of Anatomists, was considered the first large-scale exhibit of this nature in the world.
That first exhibit used bodies treated by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, who invented the plastination technique in 1977. The current exhibition displays bodies donated by Chinese for the advancement of medical research to a firm in Nanjing, according to organizers.
Sanno University psychology professor Biten Yasumoto said the exhibit’s popularity with women can be explained by the fact that they are more conscious about their bodies, both due to social expectations for them to keep up their looks and for their role as the gender that bears children.
He added that the huge popularity of the show in general can be attributed to the notion among some people that there are few things left in the physical world to discover.
“With almost everything explained, there are only about three mysteries left — the universe, the world of the atom and the complexity of the human body,” he said. “This exhibit lets people come really close to the third one.”
While some people came to the show for the very purpose intended by the organizers, like a couple who spoke of giving up cigarettes at a display showing the lungs of a heavy smoker, Yuji Sasaki, a philosophy student at a Tokyo university, had a more gloomy outlook.
“I think some visitors, especially youth, are afraid of the bodies but at the same time feel relief that they are not ‘on that side,’ ” he said. “It’s a bit like why they go to see horror movies.”
While few Japanese seem to harbor any ethical concerns over the exhibit, European religious groups and individuals have both criticized and questioned similar shows organized by plastination pioneer von Hagens that have been touring the world since 1997, according to media reports.
Such exhibitions have been staged in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Britain and South Korea. One is currently being held in Singapore.
Many European skeptics say that exhibiting actual bodies damages their sanctity, while some question whether the donors really gave their approval to have their bodies displayed in this manner.
Ryosei Yamamichi, in charge of organizing the Tokyo event, said the two exhibits are different. While von Hagens’ exhibit has both scientific and artistic sides, the one in Tokyo is purely scientific.
Shunned by fellow scientists, von Hagens is said to have moved to Dalian, China, and set up plastination centers there and in Kyrgystan.
“Von Hagens’ exhibit is more like a show, with one body shown holding its skin over its arm like a coat. Embryos are shown in the wombs of their mothers,” he said, adding it is aspects such as these that have triggered the criticism.
“Our exhibit has total consent from donors that the bodies will be used for the advancement of the study of medicine and anatomy.
“But I agree that Japanese never ask such (ethical) questions,” Yamamichi said. “When an event is held on such an extensive scale at a (well-respected) place like Yurakucho, no one has any doubts.”
But amid the controversy during von Hagens’ Berlin exhibit in 2001, as many as five people a day offered to donate their bodies, according to media reports. In Japan, only one person — a veterinarian — said on the event’s Web site that the exhibition made her consider doing this.
Go Matsuo, 31, said he could never consider donating a body, be it his or a relative’s, for such a purpose.
“When my mother mentioned something like that, I couldn’t accept it,” he said. “Although I feel guilt, I am actually relieved to hear the bodies (here) are not Japanese.”
Kiroku Echizen, a professor of religion at Tokyo’s Sophia University, said he believes Japanese feel attachment to their bodies because of the religious and cultural background that shapes their concept of life after death.
He maintained that while many Westerners may have no qualms about donating their bodies, as they see them as mere containers of the soul, Japanese view the afterlife as “an ideal version of current life” and feel that their bodies accompany them into the world beyond death.
“We know it’s a good thing (to donate one’s body for medicine), but culture works unconsciously,” he said. “Without knowing why, many Japanese find it difficult to accept that the body of another Japanese, sharing the same culture, may be among those displayed in the exhibit.”