Imagining the medical body in early modern Japan, 1600-1868



This project explores how the medical body was imagined in late 18th- and early 19th-century Japanese illustrated fiction and woodblock prints through the individual voices of urban writers and artists as opposed to ‘medical experts’. Early modern Japan saw the dissemination of medical ideas in print on a previously unseen scale – not only in the well-stocked ‘information library’ of printed medical reference works for a lay audience but also as recurring topoi in popular fiction and prints. In this context, the research will focus on the motif of adventurous imaginary journeys into the illness-stricken body which gained popularity from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards (examples include Jippensha Ikku’s Hara no uchi yōjō shuron, Santō Kyōden’s Gotai wagō monogatari, Shiba Zenkō’s Jūshi keisei hara no uchi and the late-Edo Yōjō kagami prints). Previous research has attributed this vogue for the body primarily to the ascendancy of the Western-style scientific gaze and new anatomical knowledge imported from Europe during the late eighteenth century; this however fails to recognize that such works primarily represented a response to indigenous medical, moral and educational discourses in which the body had risen to the forefront of attention during the eighteenth century. Within the context of medical popularization, vernacularization and commercialization, fiction writers made prolific use of medicine as metaphor. Images of the body, health and disease, I argue, served as a mirror for the ailing social body of the late Tokugawa state, plagued by financial, political and natural disasters, and as transgressive satirical commentaries on traditional learning and morality.