“How Does Art Heal the Human Body?” Part 1. Why do we need culture in order to live? Toshiro Inaba, a trailblazer in the world of medicine, gets to the core of medicine and art. 

After an emergency announcement regarding the coronavirus, many cultural events came to a halt. While it’s unclear when we’ll be able to have such events again, national and local governments have been reluctant to provide direct support. Let’s look at the rest of the world: In recent memory, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media of Germany, Monica Grütters, made a speech about how artists are indispensable for sustaining life today. She spoke about just how deeply rooted art and culture are in our everyday lives. However, there aren’t a lot of specific examples that demonstrate the ways in which art and culture have a positive effect on the human body. 

Doctor Toshiro Inaba has continued to speak on the relationship between medicine and art. He’s been called the enfant terrible of the medical industry and has been standing on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis as a healthcare worker. Further, he incorporates his lifework, art and culture, into his medical practice. What does a universe where Western medicine and traditional medicine coexist in harmony look like? What sort of beneficial effects does art have on the human body?

–As someone who’s on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis, what do you think about the current situation?

Toshiro Inaba: Firstly, we assume we should take prevention measures against the spread of the coronavirus. Secondly, there’s the danger of asymptomatically carrying the virus to other people unknowingly. Right now, we’re being asked to make decisions on how to maintain our current society with these two factors in mind. Of course, it goes without saying that prevention measures should be included when it comes to making medical judgements. However, I do think such judgements call for the inclusion of how this crisis affects us mentally. When the mind is damaged, it can lead to abuse and discrimination, as well as cases of depression and suicide. Utilizing the imagination is necessary in order to bring the mind into the medical decision-making equation. People gain and lose things on a myriad of levels, and so holistic judgements are required. We tend to make a lot of short-term choices when we find ourselves in a state of emergency, but instead of solely looking at the near future, it’s important for us to make sure we don’t lose sight of the far future. Plus, it’s not unusual for there to be disagreements in medical opinions to begin with. What I fear is the prospect of losing a total, overarching perspective. 

The thing that shocked me the most was finding out that families couldn’t go see their loved ones who passed away from the virus. Isn’t it strange how they’re not allowed to be at their loved one’s deathbed, let alone the crematorium? I heard that Ken Shimura’s family was in a similar situation, and I felt like the way they were treated was extreme and wrong. It also left a bad taste in my mouth how news of his death was broadcasted as though it were the most normal thing in the world. It was sad to think that something so precious to people can be taken away that easily. 

–It’s about human dignity.

Inaba: Birth, life, death; the question is, how do we treat each person’s life? It was shocking to see how there were no debates about this at all. It was all about handling the issue effectively based on medical judgements. Our current society was handed to us by those that came before us. Every living organism will meet its demise. I fear that we’re losing respect for the dead, as well as a sense or feeling that death does in fact, exist.

–What does culture bring to our lives? Could you tell us about the relationship between art and medicine from your perspective?

Inaba: The greatest similarity between medicine and art is that both fields restore this wholeness us humans have. The realm of life exists within us, while laws that govern social activities and the state are realms that exist outside of us. These two worlds operate according to completely different principles. The world that exists outside of ourselves includes social rules that we’ve made, such as how we present ourselves to others, common knowledge, and economic activities. Because our sensory organs such as eyes, nose, and mouth constantly comb through the physical world, our inner consciousness gets easily drawn outwards too. The combination of our inner and outer realms represent life itself, but the very act of living brings about gaps between those two worlds. It’s easy for the outer world we create with our heads and our inner world to become separated. It’s a matter of consciousness and unconsciousness. Further, the outer world can be categorized into the man-made world and natural world. The self is made up of the convergence of the outer world and inner world. So, in order for the self to become whole, sometimes we need medicine, and other times we need art. That’s what it means to restore our wholeness. 

–How do we become one?

Inaba: To put it simply, we must successfully connect our inner realm of life with the outer realm. I believe that’s the role of art. The medical field excels in treating the physical body but often, practitioners end up doing just the bare minimum by repairing a physical injury. Repairing something isn’t enough, as it’s necessary to work at the root and allow ourselves to be reborn again. Culture and art have played an important role when it comes to restoring the “gap” born from people’s minds and spirits. 

–So, what you’re saying is that art and culture are a sort of connecting device that maintains wholeness between our inner and outer worlds.

Inaba: Everyday, people sleep to reconnect the gaps that exist between the inner and outer world. To sleep is to return to one’s inner nest of life; it’s a symbolic act. It’s a free place where you’re liberated from status, reputation, money, time, and space. We repeatedly sleep everyday from the moment we’re born. This is an act of wisdom that keeps us from feeling distressed by our existence. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t a lot of people that go to bed fully knowing and feeling this. Unless we accept the symbolic meaning of sleep, we’ll lose our balance and sense of wholeness.

–Do you ever feel that way in your actual practice?

Inaba: Thanks to the development of the internet and social media, the external space that holds information gets filled in with other people’s desires. That is, our external self is solely created with other people’s desires. The actual self is absent there. There’s no end to us perfecting our exterior. People that can connect their outer and inner selves usually don’t find themselves having issues. However, once certain gaps begin to grow, the virtual image of the self does too. Then, this starts to eat away at you. It’s an unnatural situation. This is why in the medical field, I think about how the patient can get in touch with their actual self. Through various angles, I then think about what sort of process brought about the gaps, as well as what the driving force was. I also think about the dynamics and mechanisms. After finding a decent theory or line of reason, I carefully trace the faint footsteps that led them to that point. When art is born, it’s born through an abstract process, right? It’s the abstract process behind the problem that’s important. It’s like retracing the process that created a certain work of art.

In fact, I often get inspiration for my practice from art and literature. The other day, I was listening to someone talking and I began to imagine the world of Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.” I activated my imagination and thought about what sort of situation Toru (the protagonist) was in. I also let several other stories progress concurrently in my head. By doing so, I analyzed that person’s plot. I find this deep process to be important. Surface-level conversations are important too, but sharing stories that occur in the depths of the mind connects you to the other person. They told me that they didn’t know why, but they liked Haruki Murakami’s work. Even if it can’t be seen or touched, on a deep, unconscious level, there are things that can be shared among people.

What a hybrid of Eastern and Western medicine and art can do for the body and mind

–You actually incorporate art and culture into your practice.

Inaba: In my case, they’re one and the same. I’ve never separated them. When it comes to art, creators penetrate the unconscious stage, then go through many abstract layers, so the number of times they access their deep unconsciousness is high. Therefore, fully entering the realm of art is similar to entering the mind of someone with deep worries and anguish. On the contrary, entertainment is about bringing conscious emotions to the forefront. Is it the world of emotions or is it a womb where emotions are begotten? Depending on the depth of each person’s worries and concerns, the mental route they access changes.

–It’s difficult to become aware of one’s own unconscious world, isn’t it?

Inaba: The words “become aware of” suggest that the brain doesn’t recognize it, but the body does. The body is unconsciousness itself. For instance, it’s the job of a doctor to decipher symptoms and signs that show up on patients’ skin, beyond the boundaries of language. At the end of the day, medical treatment comes down to figuring out how to creatively develop an individual’s wellbeing via connecting their inner and outer worlds. Even in Eastern thought and Indian philosophy, there’s a history of exploring the body and mind by dividing the structure of unconsciousness into many layers. If you think about it, the natural healing power of mending broken things is a miraculous thing. Doctors can only do so much. For medical practitioners, to not get in the way of the processes created by nature, is to understand and give courtesy. 

In a sense, modern society is set up. There are cases where people are deprived of having the opportunity to grow up and mature. We are vulnerable to critical situations where the our assumptions are overturned. I think it’s vital to always have a sense of danger and discomfort in the face of a system that hazily washes people away.

–Our seemingly efficient economic system was vulnerable to unexpected disruptions due to a lack of resilience and diversity. 

Inaba: In contrast, nature works so well, and has the strength and flexibility to overcome emergencies. Wholeness is preserved in nature that way. When I’m on the ground, working in the medical field, I feel as though people are losing the dignity of life. That is, each individual is born with their own life and yet, they become so influenced by the external world. Saying that everyone is cleverly managed and controlled is an exaggeration, but once people lose their sense of danger, life itself starts to turn into a sickness that tries to rob people of their balance. 

–Ironically, I often hear people talk about how the environment is improving under the conditions we’re living in right now. I also hear that people are becoming physically healthier.

Inaba: It could be said that up until now, society has gained its life energy because we sacrifice our health, as though it were some sort of offering. Society is healthier when we return to becoming individuals and going back to our inner world as though we were going to sleep. We’re standing at a crossroads right now; should we go back to the way things were before? I think all the wisdom needed to overcome tough times could be found in human existence. Our predecessors survived the harshest of environments. Their wisdom lives through this life that we have today. The outside world is important, yes, but we must rejuvenate our inner self first. Things like philosophy and thought could be conducive to doing this.

–With the connection between medicine and art in mind, what sort of effect does the difference between the approaches of Eastern and Western medicine have on art, including thought and philosophy?

Inaba: When you hear the word “Eastern medicine,” the first thing you think of might be traditional Chinese medicine, but that’s one type of methodology. What’s important here is thought. The difference between Eastern and Western medicine lies in their philosophy rather than their methods. In Eastern medicine, there’s this notion that the universe and humans, inner and outer worlds, all exist by maintaining this wholeness. This doesn’t only apply to humans, it also extends to the natural world like viruses and bacteria, as well as the universe. Through the lens of traditional medicine, we look at the details without forgetting the bigger picture, so we don’t lose sight of wholeness. 

Contrarily, in Western medicine, there’s the notion of separating and categorizing organs into say, the brain, heart, and liver. If one doesn’t make a deliberate effort, it’s hard to return to the thought of wholeness. It’s not about superiority and inferiority between the two schools of thought. Rather, it’s about the fundamental difference between their philosophies. Of course, I do think these two philosophies are connected deep down, somewhere.

–What are the differences between Eastern and Western art and culture?  

Inaba: For example, Zen and Buddhist philosophy are at the root of Japanese culture. When it comes to Japanese flower arrangements (“Kadou”), one flower captures the overall relationship between humans and nature. Isn’t there a difference between the underlying philosophy behind Kadou and Western flower arrangements, or Japanese gardens and Western gardens? Although thoughts are invisible to the eye, they become realized in shape and form. I feel like there’s potential there in that difference. The East and the West are completely different, but there’s still a connection somewhere. The connection might be a hidden passage. The coexistence of different principles is important, and I feel as though they’re creating a hybrid of sorts. It’s up to the individual to decide which way of thinking to prioritize. Now is the precise time to look to the next era while tracing back the history of the East and West.

Toshiro Inaba
Born in Kumamoto Prefecture in 1979, Toshiro Inaba is a Doctor of Medicine. From 2014 to March of 2020, he worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Tokyo Hospital. From April of 2020, he became the General Manager at Karuizawa Hospital. In addition to studying Western medicine, he also has a wide range of knowledge related to Eastern, traditional, and alternative medicine. He’s also found overlaps between medicine and a variety of fields such as art, traditional performing arts, folklore, and history. Currently, he works as a visiting professor at Tohoku University of Art and Design. He is the author of “What Awakens Life: The Human Mind and Body.” (Anonima Studio) and more. His new book, published in July, is called “From This Life to the Next: A New Form of Medicine” (Anonima Studio). 

Photography Kazuo Yoshida
Translation Lena-Grace Suda
Special Thanks Kyukaruizawa Café Suzunone


Jun Ashizawa

Born in 1981. After graduating from college, worked in editorial production, producing cultural content and fashion catalogs for publishing companies. After travelling abroad for several years, he joined INFAS Publications in 2011, where he served as Managing Editor of the culture magazine "Studio Voice," which reissued in 2015, from Vol. 406 "YOUTH OF TODAY" to Vol. 410 "VS. Later, as a senior editor for "WWD Japan" and "WWD JAPAN.com," he was mainly in charge of men's collections, covering London and other overseas collections such as Pitti, Milan, Paris. He has been the editorial director of "TOKION" since July 2020.