Portrait of the Week #19 – Neil Gordon Munro

Neil Gordon Munro (1863 – 1942), a Scottish doctor who received his MD at Edinburgh University, lived in Japan for most of his life. He was neither a professional archaeologist nor anthropologist; but his curiosity about the human race kept him abreast of the leading theories of the day and in contact with many leading scholars in these disciplines. His interests in archaeology led him to discover evidence of the prehistoric people of Japan in 1905/6 during his excavation of the Mitsusawa shell-mound. Munro found human skeletons which he was sure belonged to the ancestors of the Ainu, and indigenous race living in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

In 1898 Munro first visited the Ainu and became concerned about their disappearing life-style. He was at that time employed as the medical director of the Yokohama Hospital but kept in contact with the people he met in Hokkaido until he moved there in 1930. He opened a clinic in Nibutani to treat the Ainu and record the richness and diversity of a dying culture for posterity.

In assessing Munro’s contribution to Japanese studies, it is important to consider the prevailing politics of the period when he was carrying out his research in Japan. Japan’s seclusion during the exploration of ideas and the industrial revolution in Europe meant that there had to be periods of adjustment to ideas and disciplines which had been formed in the West over a longer period.

Some of these disciplines such as the study of human species and its origins were going to be politically sensitive in a country which had just reaffirmed its loyalty to a divine Emperor. This reaffirmation was central to overthrowing a military dictator who was related to the Tokugawa shoguns. This family had united Japan in 1600 and closed the country to all foreigners except a carefully controlled number with trading concessions in Nagasaki.

Munro was neither a professional archaeologist nor anthropologist in an academic sense, but he was a pioneer in both disciplines. He used the genealogical method, taught to him by Seligman, to help him elucidate the social organization of the Ainu. He was also very well read in both subjects and familiar with the leading theories and scholars of the day. Above all, he recorded what he saw and heard in detail and had the possible advantage of not having to fit it all into pre-conceived and rigid structures of academic discipline. As Fosco Maraini said of him, Munro was ‘… a typical representative of the modern thinker who not only speculates but observes’.

This is an extract from a biography by Jane Wilkinson. The full biographies for each Portrait of the Week are contained in the Japan Society series Biographical Portraits (Vols. I – VIII). If you would like to purchase any of these volumes, they can be found online in the Japan Society Shop, with a special discount for members.

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