The UCSF Japanese Woodblock Print Collection consists of four hundred Japanese woodblock prints on health-related themes. Of those, more than half are colorfully illustrated in the ukiyo-e manner, the remainder being printed single-sheet texts. From the treatment and prevention of diseases like smallpox, measles, and cholera, to the stages of pregnancy and drug advertisements, these prints offer a unique window into traditional Japanese attitudes toward health and illness.
The majority of the prints date to the mid- to late nineteenth century, when Japan was opening to the West after almost two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed isolation. Thus, they provide valuable pictorial evidence for the effect of Western medical science on traditional beliefs and practices.
Five subject areas broadly define the collection. The treatment and prevention of three contagious diseases — smallpox, measles, and cholera — are topics for eighty of the prints. A related category includes prints in which Buddhist or Shinto deities intervene to ensure a cure. Pregnancy and women's health issues form a distinct theme, including several images of the stages of gestation. Because foreigners were thought to carry disease to Japan, the collection also includes several maps of Nagasaki, where the Dutch were confined during the Edo period, as well as prints depicting foreigners and their ships. Drug advertisements from the nineteenth century make up the largest category.
Prints on other topics include works describing ordinary medical or psychological conditions, such as dizziness or nightmares, prints relating to nutrition, and those portraying the internal operations of the human body.
The woodblock prints in this collection offer a fascinating visual account of Japanese medical knowledge in the late Edo and Meiji periods. Collectively, they record a gradual shift, by the late nineteenth century, from the reliance on gods and charms for succor from disease, to the adoption of Western, scientific principles as the basis for medical knowledge. They show the introduction of imported drugs and vaccines and increased use of printed advertisements to promote new medicinal products.
The ukiyo-e tradition
When considering these specialized prints, it is worth asking how they relate to the larger tradition of Japanese woodblock printmaking. Today, Japanese prints are most often referred to as ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world." In the late seventeenth century, the ukiyo-e print emerged from the world of the pleasure quarters or licensed entertainment districts, located in most major urban centers.
A constant theme of Edo period (1615-1868) ukiyo-e is the celebrity inhabitant of this world: the famous Kabuki actors and sophisticated female entertainers (geisha) who served in the pleasure quarter's brothels and restaurants. Although actor and beauty themes remained popular, by the 1830s and 1840s, two new genres had risen to prominence: landscapes, like the famous views of Mt. Fuji by Hokusai (1760-1849), and figures from history and legend, including warriors, ghosts, deities, demons, and a wide array of comic and anthropomorphic imagery.
After 1854, when Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its ports to American and European traders, print designers turned to the theme of foreigners and their customs, and increasingly, Japan's modernization during the ensuing Meiji era (1868-1912).