Behind the tattooed skins, severed arms and rat skeletons in the university lab rests the world's only collection of famous brains, left to posterity by some of Japan's greatest thinkers. (Moscow has Lenin's and Stalin's brains in storage with hundreds of lesser-known specimens.)
Each of the 120 brains of prime ministers, novelists, artists and scholars has its own container, something like a fish tank, in the University of Tokyo's medical department.Scientists there hope to gain some insight into what makes the brains of famous people special.
"We'd like to get many more," said Yutaka Yoshida, curator of the collection. "I'd especially like to get brains from mathematicians, musicians and singers."
The collection was begun in 1913, when the family of Taro Katsura, a three-time prime minister, asked that his brain be preserved for study after his death. The newest acquisition is the brain of former Prime Minister Takeo Miki, who died in 1988.
So far, the deep-rooted reluctance among Japanese to tamper with the dead has ensured that the museum's resources far outweigh its ability to use them.
"We try, as far as possible, not to cut them," Yoshida said. "We want to keep them in their original shape."
University researchers have cross-sectioned several brains to allow some visual and microscopic comparisons. Most are undisturbed, however, immersed in amber formaldehyde, gleaming palely behind small handwritten cards giving the names and special qualities of their original owners.
Yoshida is a slight, quiet man with 13 years of experience in the lab, which also has diseased selections of human anatomy and wall-hangings of tattooed skins donated by men who wanted to have their body art preserved.