Hansen’s disease in Korea historically existed at endemic levels until effective drugs became available in the 1930s to 1950s. It has been referenced in Korean literature for centuries even including some Chosun era mask dances. In the 20th century, Hansen’s disease patients became what professor Jeong Keun-Shik of Seoul National University refers to as “the most significant social other” in ethnically homogeneous Korean society. They have alternately been used as symbols of national shame, Christian salvation, Japanese imperial benevolence, and finally Korea’s national “han,” or sorrow.
Joji Kohjima’s research deals with the efforts of Hansens’s disease patients to tell their own story, and to seek restitution for their treatment under Japanese colonialism and post-colonial Korean governments. He has been researching the social and medical conditions of Hansen’s disease in modern Korea in conjunction with several institutions including the Catholic University Medical School’s Leprosy Center in Seoul, the 518 Memorial Hall at Jeonnam National University, Aeyangwon hospital in Yeosu, and Sorokdo National Leprosy Hospital in Sorok Island, Jeollanamdo. This forum will explore leprosy in Korean society as a phenomenon originating at the microscopic level of bacteria but extending to the level of social constructs in the discrimination, otherization and isolation faced by leprosy patients. Largely originating in Japanese colonial policy, patients have historically faced quarantine, forced labor, and forced sterilization as they were caught in the triangle of Japanese colonial government, missionaries, and an often hostile Korean population.
Joji Wilson Kohjima is originally from Tacoma, Washington. He is the great grandson of Robert Manton Wilson, an American missionary who worked as a doctor on Hansen’s disease in Korea from 1907 to 1941. Joji graduated in International Studies from the University of Washington where he also studied pre-medicine with a focus on biochemistry. He will apply for medical school to begin in 2012. He hopes to continue studies in medical anthropology in conjunction with medical school.