A gruesome look at Edo Period autopsy art

May 05, 2014

By LOUIS TEMPLADO/ AJW Staff Writer

Visitors to the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo be warned: An exhibition devoted to medical practices in the Edo Period (1603-1867) is graphic, to say the least.

Titled “I wa Jinjutsu” (Medicine as a Philanthropic Art), the show brings together surgical implements, instructive dolls and hundreds of scrolls and illustrations to give a picture of how unique Japan’s medical system was at the time, given its hybrid nature.

“Japan was able to draw upon two worlds of medical knowledge at a time when one was eclipsing the other,” explains Kazuyoshi Suzuki, director of the museum's Center of the History of Japanese Industrial Technology and chief organizer of the exhibition. The first was traditional Chinese medicine in its various forms such as herbal mixes, acupuncture and massage, meant to heal the root cause of an illness. The other was the evidence-based and often invasive practice of post-Renaissance Western medicine. “Japanese accepted elements from both, which they then adapted to their own needs.”

Although not an art show, “I wa Jinjutsu” is filled with colorful and finely detailed prints. Instead of geisha and Kabuki actors, however, they depict the bodies of criminals (who are identified by name) being flayed, sectioned and having their inner organs inflated like balloons. Arrayed in sequence in long scrolls, these autopsy illustrations were drawn by the very doctors observing the process--who would not touch the corpses with their own hands.

Until 1754, when the first Japanese autopsy took place in Kyoto, dissections or any other mistreatment of bodies were considered a religious taboo. Moreover, Japanese physicians saw no point in it. “In the tradition Chinese medicine they believed that it was useless to treat an illness directly, instead it had to be traced back to its cause. They were convinced that no matter how much they cut into a body it would only reveal the effects of illness, but that its root was somewhere else beyond the symptoms.”

That first dissection, conducted under the direction of Yamawaki Toyo with the permission of feudal lords, wasn’t an examination of the human body so much as a test of Western learning. Medical knowledge from Europe began trickling into Japan in the early 1600s, with the arrival of the Portuguese and the Dutch. Japanese physicians were fascinated by the tome “Ontleedkundige Tafelen,” a Dutch-language translation of the German “Anatomische Tabellen,” and wanted to verify its accuracy. The result astounded Yamawaki, and autopsies became a sort of fad among physician’s circles. It took until 1774, however, for a full blown Japanese translation of “Ontleedkundige Tafelen” to make it into print.

A copy of the work, titled “Kaitai Shinsho” (New Text on Anatomy) and complete with Japanese-style illustrations and pop-up sections, is in the exhibition next to the Dutch original.

Yet, what is most fascinating about the works gathered is that they were not intended solely for physicians, but for commoners as well, according to Suzuki. The literature and charts were reprinted and disseminated throughout towns and villages in Japan for the education of the general public. That explains a child-sized anatomical model of the human body made by a farmer in 1822 based on the “Kaitai Shinsho” that features in the show.

"Most people think that nationalized medicine dates from the postwar years, but the system actually dates from the Edo Period.

The idea that medical knowledge and help should be available to everyone is probably the most Japanese element to the system," says Suzuki.

By LOUIS TEMPLADO/ AJW Staff Writer
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The exhibition "I wa jinjutsu" includes a model of the human body made by a farmer in 1822, based on the first translated book on anatomy published in Japan. (Louis Templado)

The exhibition "I wa jinjutsu" includes a model of the human body made by a farmer in 1822, based on the first translated book on anatomy published in Japan. (Louis Templado)

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  • The exhibition "I wa jinjutsu" includes a model of the human body made by a farmer in 1822, based on the first translated book on anatomy published in Japan. (Louis Templado)
  • Displays of long scrolls bearing detailed illustrations of autopsies on criminals make up part of the  exhibition "I wa jinjutsu," which runs until June 15 at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. (Louis Templado)
  • Kazuyoshi Suzuki, director of the Center of the History of Japanese Industrial Technology at the National Museum of Nature and Science, speaks beside prints depicting the heads of criminals. (Louis Templado)
  • The exhibition dedicated to the science of anatomy also includes some well-known works of art, such as this ukiyoe print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. (Louis Templado)

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