Disability History Beyond Borders: The Story of Ryoichi Ishii and Takinogawa Gakuen in Japan

By Yoshiya Makita

In the countryside, an hour’s train ride away from the noisy central districts of Tokyo, the buildings of Takinogawa Gakuen stand in solitude, surrounded as they are by deep forest and tiny streams. As a social welfare center, Takinogawa Gakuen provides services to people with mental disabilities. The small institution has a long history. Visitors learn with a sense of surprise that this first institution of its kind, which was established in Japan more than a hundred years ago, continues its mission on the western outskirts of the metropolis.

In the past ten years, the field of disability history has been expanding hugely to include various areas of research from diverse perspectives. No historian can now ignore the critical importance of disability, which influences one’s social life, at the intersection with other social attributes such as race, gender, and class. To this current state of the field, the story of Takinogawa Gakuen and its founder Ryoichi Ishii will add another new viewpoint: a transnational perspective on the history of disabilities. What it means to be disabled varies with location. But historical inquiries reveal that different institutions of disability in various localities have often developed through transnational exchange of ideas and practices beyond borders.

Portrait of Ryoichi Ishii (Courtesy of Takinogawa Gakuen)
Portrait of Ryoichi Ishii (Courtesy of Takinogawa Gakuen)
The history of Takinogawa Gakuen involved transnational dimensions at its inception. Ryoichi Ishii was born in 1867, the son of a local warrior in the southwestern region of Japan. After the turbulent years subsequent to the Meiji Restoration, Ishii entered Rikkyo College in Tokyo in 1884. At the college established by the American Episcopal Mission in the foreign settlement, Ishii got baptized to be a Christian while learning the basics of Western science under the instruction of Channing Moore Williams. After graduation, Ishii began work as the director of a girls’ orphanage in Tokyo. Among the inmates of the orphanage, Ishii soon noticed a girl with mental disability. His uphill struggle to teach this little girl led him to embark on a new career in special education for the mentally disabled. In April 1896, Ishii boarded the San Francisco steamer to study theories and practices of education for mentally disabled children in the United States.

During his research travel, Ishii diligently absorbed Western scientific ideas on mental disability at various institutions in the United States. In Massachusetts, he learned the latest knowledge at the Boston Public Library, while auditing lectures at Harvard University. During his stay in Cambridge, Ishii also had the opportunity to meet Helen Keller. For on-site study of institutional operations, Ishii visited several prominent schools and asylums, such as the Minnesota School for the Feeble Minded in Faribault, the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children in Waverly, and the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble Minded Children in Elwyn. In Orange, New Jersey, Ishii visited the school founded by French educationist Edward Seguin, for whom Ishii had a high regard as “a giant in the field.” In December 1896, Ishii returned to Japan. With his newly acquired knowledge, he reorganized the former girls’ orphanage into Takinogawa Gakuen School for Feeble Minded Children in 1897.

At the very time when Ishii was visiting institutions in the United States, the idea of “mental retardation” was in fact undergoing a significant change within American scientific circles. Until the late nineteenth century, the understanding of intellectual disability as a defect that was partially curable through proper training of the nervous system had dominated scientific discussions under the influence of Edward Seguin’s physiological theory. With the rise of the eugenics movement at the turn of the twentieth century, however, American scientists came to believe “mental retardation” to be an incurable hereditary impairment. Asylum superintendents upheld the idea of permanent segregation of the mentally disabled as a menace to society. Old physiological understandings of “idiocy” gradually gave way to a new psychological measurement of “feeble-mindedness.” It was the chaotic mixture of old and new theories in this transitional period that Ishii learned in the United States and brought back to Japan.

Takinogawa Gakuen in the Early Twentieth Century. Source: Bureau for Social Work, Present Conditions of the Child Welfare Work in Japan (Tokyo: Home Department, 1920).
Takinogawa Gakuen in the Early Twentieth Century. Source: Bureau for Social Work, Present Conditions of the Child Welfare Work in Japan (Tokyo: Home Department, 1920).
Fierce as the theoretical controversies over the concept of “mental retardation” were among American scientists, it mattered little for Ishii. His venture in Japan turned out to be a peculiar hybrid of conflicting scientific theories, old and new. On the one hand, for the education of inmates at Takinogawa Gakuen, Ishii adopted old physiological methods as advocated by Seguin decades earlier. He attempted to regenerate the sensory system of the mentally disabled through continuous training of sense organs from simple physical exercise of muscles to the practice of associating abstract ideas. Ishii believed in the educability of mentally disabled children. He clung to the idea that Takinogawa Gakuen was not a custodial asylum but a “school.” On the other hand, however, Ishii introduced the latest findings of psychology and eugenics to the surveillance of the mentally disabled in society at large. Commissioned by the Tokyo prefectural government, Ishii established the Department of Child Research at his institution, where he examined 4,328 children suspected of “mental retardation” in 1921-1932. By means of the Stanford-Binet scale of intelligence test, he diagnosed nearly 16 percent of these children as “feeble-minded.”

Not just transplanting American ideas of mental disability into Japanese society, Ryoichi Ishii and his experiment at Takinogawa Gakuen paved a unique path for the institutional care of the mentally disabled in Japan. By the end of World War II, the Japanese government had assumed practically no legal responsibility for the care of people with mental disabilities. The care for the mentally disabled rested on desperate efforts by a handful of private institutions. In a letter to Martin W. Barr, the chief physician at the Pennsylvania Training School in the United States, Ishii wrote, “A new building is just going to be finished, and twenty more of the feeble-minded are expected next month. There are nearly two hundred applicants, but I have no room for any addition of inmates. My institution is a private one.” In the absence of state custodial care as found in the United States, Takinogawa Gakuen and its follower institutions gradually enhanced their practical capacity. In the 1950s, the growth of these private institutions gave basis for the introduction of the public-private partnership system, which has characterized public assistance for people with mental disabilities in Japan up until now.


  • Ishii Ryoichi Zenshu Kankokai, ed. Ishii Ryoichi Zenshu. 4 vols. Tokyo: Ozorasha, 1992.
  • Takinogawa Gakuen, ed. Takinogawa Gakuen Hyaku-Nijunen Shi. 2 vols. Tokyo: Ozorasha, 2011.

Recommended Citation
Yoshiya Makita (2016): Disability History Beyond Borders: The Story of Ryoichi Ishii and Takinogawa Gakuen in Japan. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 12.


Disability history and the cultural meaning of signatures

By Monika Baar

One of the most crucial and most rewarding tasks of scholars studying the history of disability is to contribute to the integration of disabled citizens’ voices into mainstream historical discourses. This also constitutes an important ambition of the research project Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Historical Perspective which I am directing in the Institute for History at Leiden University with the support of a Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council.

International Year for disabled persons, stamp from Trinidad and Tobago
International Year for disabled persons, stamp
© Mark Morgan (CC BY 2.0)
Self-evident the ambition to render disabled people’s experiences accessible to the academic and non-academic public comes with particular challenges. One of the acute problems is the dearth of available historical sources. Documents relating to disability policies typically receive low priority when it comes to archival preservation and storage. On the fortunate occasions when those sources have ‘survived’, they have often not been systematized and catalogued and as such are particularly difficult to study.  Moreover, while such policy-related documents provide us with valuable information about how representatives of the state, various institutions and organizations have approached disability, they can hardly offer an insight into the everyday life experiences of disabled people. Occasionally serendipity helps the researcher to find some interesting pamphlets, magazines, photos and other sources at some unexpected locations, such as the cellars and attics of disabled people’s homes or those of their organizations.


Subversive Access: Disability History Goes Public in the United States

By Catherine Kudlick
(Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, San Francisco State University)

In summer 2015, the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University mounted an interactive, multi-media exhibit “Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights". We faced several daunting challenges that ultimately made our installation like no other. In fact, we have been sharing our process with museum professionals and continue to learn as we go.

First, the story itself: on April 5, 1977, more than 100 Americans with and without disabilities began a twenty-six day occupation of San Francisco’s Federal Building to insist on getting civil rights. Four years earlier, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 made it illegal for any facilities or programs funded by the national government to discriminate against disabled people. One official’s signature stood in the way of the law taking effect. After four years of waiting, a coalition made up people with different disabilities launched protests across the country. San Francisco’s occupation proved the most involved and successful. In fact, thanks to support from local community groups like the Black Panther Party, Glide Memorial Church, the Gay Men’s Butterfly Brigade, as well as local and national politicians, it remains the longest unarmed take-over of a federal building in US history. The occupation itself and subsequent victory gave birth to a national disability rights movement and helped pave the way for passing Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) thirteen years later in 1990.


T4 and public disability history in Sweden

By Matilda Svensson Chowdhury

The boy in the black and white photograph is smiling widely at the camera. He is well-groomed and well-dressed in a white shirt and a dark jacket. His eyes are glistening. This photograph is the first picture in a Swedish exhibition on Aktion T4. Across the boy's chest there’s a turquoise text: “Aktion T4 – on the view of human beings in Nazi Germany”. The boy in the picture is named Robert and a little further in the exhibition, we learn how his mother cunningly was able to could save him from becoming a victim of T4.

Picture of Robert, exhibition on Aktion T4
Picture of Robert, exhibition on Aktion T4

The Living History Forum (The LHF) is a Swedish public authority [myndighet] which, on behalf of the Swedish government, shall “promote work to enhance democracy, tolerance and human rights with special focus on the Holocaust.” It might seem a bit strange to have a public authority working with these issues, but this is the way it has been in Sweden for the last almost 20 years. A large part of the work the LHF is doing is directed at school children and thus there is almost always an educational framing to the produced material, for example in the form of teachers’ guides. One of the first information materials, which was developed already in 1998, was the book “Tell Ye Your Children...”. This book was however intended primarily for an adult audience and came about as a part of the first information campaign, Living History. To date, more than 1.5 million free copies have been distributed in Sweden.


The Portrait of a Sixteenth-Century Disabled Man

By Volker Schönwiese

Gazes at women and men with disabilities from the early modern times up until today – how can they be interpreted scientifically and artistically? A painting from an unknown disabled man from the 16th century that has not been taken notice of until then was the starting point of a participatory and transdisciplinary project in 2005/2006. The portrait is part of the “Kunst- und Wunderkammer” (Cabinet of Arts and Wonders, founded by Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria, Region of the Tyrol [1529-1595]) at Ambras Castle near the city of Innsbruck/ Austria. The Institute of Educational Sciences at the University of Innsbruck, the Museum of Fine Arts (“Kunsthistorisches Museum”) in Vienna with its collection at Ambras Castle and the Centre for Independent Living in Innsbruck were the project partners of this research project. The project´s main goals were the creation and organisation of an exhibition at Ambras Castle and the publication of a scientific anthology with collected articles. Both goals were achieved in cooperation with a reference group of women and men with disabilities. Additionally, a television documentary was created. The participatory approach of the project should finally lead to recommendations for working with reference groups as a way of transdisciplinary participation.

During the duration of the project, two other historical paintings were found that are also significant for the analysis of the cultural representation of disability: a leaflet from 1620 showing Wolfgang Gschaidter, a carpenter with a disability [1] and a small picture from 1578, showing Elizabeth, a woman with a learning disability [2].


Polio Lives - Translating ethnographic text into verbatim theatre

By Sonali Shah

Increasingly, in today’s text-based society, there is a call to adapt and translate academic research into forms that are accessible to a diversity of stakeholders in order to accelerate its impact beyond the academic gates. Such thinking informed the Polio Lives study - a two stage pilot study which explored the potential of interdisciplinary methodologies to exchange and communicate knowledge, about the social history of polio, to different communities in creative ways. The first stage involved conducting five life history interviews with survivors of childhood paralytic polio, contracted during the U.K. polio epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s.  Selected quotes from these transcripts were used to illustrate various points throughout the paper. The second stage of the study involved collaborating with Birds of Paradise theatre company to run two workshops to explore how to tell the story of polio through recorded delivery verbatim methodologies.

For the purposes of the blog, I will omit all the theoretical debates around the use of drama as a tool to educate contemporary audiences about historical diseases which are unfamiliar to them. This can be read about in my journal paper which should be available this year. Instead I urge you to watch the short documentary, Polio Monologues, which explores how the life stories of polio survivors (specifically those with paralytic polio since childhood), collected by a social scientific disability researcher (myself) can be embodied and staged using the verbatim theatre technique recorded delivery.

Recommended Citation
Sonali Shah (2016): Polio Lives - Translating ethnographic text into verbatim theatre. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 7.


Favorite TED talks about disability

By Ylva Söderfeldt

TED talks have become a hugely popular forum for public debate. The format consists of brief lectures, around twenty minutes long, presented in an entertaining, provocative, and popular way, to a live audience and openly available online. TED talks address a wide range of topics, from science, politics, and society, to personal stories. Quite a few of them relate to disability, for instance presenting high-tech protheses, or the experiences of disabled athletes. Today, we’ve selected three favorite TED talks on disability:

Alice Dreger, „Is anatomy destiny?“
Dreger is well known for her groundbreaking studies on conjoined twins and intersex. In this talk, she suggests that unusual bodies can teach us something about democracy.

Maysoon Zayid, „I got 99 problems… palsy is just one“
Zayid talks about being at the intersection between racism, sexism, ableism… and comedy!

Mads Ananda Lodahl, „Ending the straight world order“
This talk isn’t about disability at all, but Lodahl talks about how queer studies question the concept of normal, and what the consequences of enforcing normalcy are.
Link to X-Talk

Most TED talks have subtitles and transcripts in several languages and the option to comment and discuss online. Enjoy, and tell us about your favorite TED talks!

Recommended Citation
Ylva Söderfeldt (2016): Favorite TED talks about disability. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 6.