We present here the beginnings of public health politics in Meiji Japan (1868-1912). Due to a two century isolation of Japan, public health concepts developed in the West from the end of the 18th century were foreign in premodern Japan. Due to its isolation, Japan was also relatively preserved from some acute infectious diseases such as cholera. In this paper, we investigate the role of cholera epidemics in the emergence of public health concepts in the peculiar context of Meiji Japan. We show that chronic diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy were neglected for a long time and that the Meiji government set priority on acute infectious diseases that were considered as long as they disturbed public order. Nevertheless, some physicians and government officials considered issues of welfare and poverty. We also review some emerging concepts of social medicine. We try to show that in Japan as well as in western nations public health politics were not exempt of contradictions and paradoxes and a permanent tension existed between coercitive policies and conceptions of welfare and rights to health.