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Tokyo museum explores the world of parasites

  • TAKU YAGINUMA / JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI

    At the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, visitors hold a 19-foot-long rope that is equivalent to the length of a tapeworm found in a man. Exhibits show how types of parasites differ depending on their host animals.

  • TAKU YAGINUMA / JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI

    At the Meguro Parasitological Museum in tokyo, exhibits who how types of parasites differ depending on their host animals.

TOKYO >> It’s hard to believe that about 60,000 parasitological specimens are housed in a building on bustling Meguro-dori avenue in Tokyo, which is lined with fashionable shops. Stepping inside Meguro Parasitological Museum, I prepared myself for an eerie atmosphere, but it was actually crowded with families.

About 300 exhibits, some in formalin, are neatly showcased and illuminated by LED lights, which does give the scene a mystical look.

The exhibits on the first floor show the diversity of parasites, such as a type of mite that swells up to the size of a 500 yen coin (about 1 inch) from sucking blood, and futagomushi (Paradiplozoon skrjabini), an organism that spends its entire life fused together with another of its kind, forming the shape of a butterfly. The parasites on display have various types of biology. For example, leucochloridium sneaks into snails and makes their eye stalks look like caterpillars. This draws the attention of birds, who eat them, enabling them to reproduce.

“Parasites are usually viewed as bad fellows. But most of them have evolved to coexist with their hosts. Only a few are harmful,” said Museum Director Kazuo Ogawa.

Parasites that have a relationship with the human body are shown on the second floor. An eye-catching exhibit here is a nearly 19-foot tapeworm. The man who was the parasite’s host reportedly said he didn’t notice any symptoms at all. A rope to the side of the exhibit shows the length of the tapeworm.

The museum was founded by the late Satoru Kamegai, a doctor who studied malaria and other diseases at a research institute of the now defunct South Manchuria Railway and opened a clinic in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, after World War II. He put his own money into the museum, in the hope that people would get a better grasp of parasites during a time when intestinal worms and other parasites were rampant in Japan.

Only about 70 specimens were on show when the museum opened. But from that point on, Kamegai collected specimens by whatever means possible, including getting parasites from dead dogs on the side of the road or obtaining organs removed from stuffed specimens.

The museum also exhibits a new type of parasite that Kamegai found as a result of six months of research when he participated in an academic study of the anatomy of coelacanths, an order of fish.

The number of parasitic diseases in Japan has decreased sharply due to better hygiene and prevention measures.

Now pinworm egg tests at schools have disappeared. Even so, awareness of parasites such as anisakis, which can be contracted from fish and seafood, is still needed.

“It’s rare to get infected with parasitic disease these days and knowledge of them may be lost. I want more people to come here and learn,” Ogawa said.

The museum opened in 1953. It was refurbished in 1991, and in 1992 moved into the current six-story building. Researchers give expositions once a month. T-shirts printed with a 3-D tapeworm and parasite charms for cell phones are popular items at the museum gift shop.

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