By Nancy Mattoon
Four hundred rare images of the Japanese woodblock prints, commonly referred to as ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world," have been digitized by the libraries of the University of California, San Francisco. The UCSF Japanese Woodblock Print Collection is the largest collection of such woodblock prints related to health in the United States. While the most common ukiyo-e prints contain images of famous Kabuki actors or geishas, this collection is unique in depicting the history of medicine in Japan in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. This time in history, known as the late Edo and Meiji periods, was one of great change, when Japan was opening to the West after almost two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed isolation.
The collection is defined by five broad subject areas. The topic of 80 of the prints is the treatment and prevention of three contagious diseases: smallpox, measles, and cholera. A closely related area shows the intervention of various deities, both Buddhist and Shinto, to bring about a cure for those deadly maladies. Foreigners were seen as carriers of disease, so the collection includes prints depicting their arrival by ship, and the confined Dutch settlement of Nagasaki. Women's health, and specifically, pregnancy, make up a fourth area, including images of the gestating fetus. Finally, the largest part of the collection is made up of advertisements for drugs, cosmetics, and other health products from the 19th century. There are also miscellaneous prints depicting medical and psychological problems from dizziness to nightmares, and prints about nutrition and bodily functions.
According to the library's online exhibition, "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 method of creating these prints is as interesting as their subject matter. As described in commentary to the show, "Ukiyo-eprints were products of a remarkable collaboration between print publishers, designers, master block carvers, and printers. The publisher was the impresario who brought together the other, highly specialized team members. Having obtained a detailed sketch from the artist, he supervised the carving of multiple cherrywood blocks: a finely detailed key block, rendering the outlines of the design, and as many as a dozen separate blocks for printing each of the colors. The printer then stepped in, applying color to the blocks and printing them in succession, carefully registering the edges, and rubbing the paper (placed facedown on the block) to evenly transfer the colors to the page."
In spite of this labor-intensive process, the finished prints were not expensive. They were either sold directly by the publishers in runs of several hundred, or distributed cheaply, or for free, to traveling vendors, who in turn gave them to local merchants, artisans, and tradesmen. The prints, however, were never meant to last. Like today's health brochures and mass market advertising supplements, they were expected to be read and discarded. Their ephemeral nature makes it all the more impressive that such a fine collection of prints has been assembled and made available to 21st century viewers.
The UCSF woodblock print collection was begun in 1963 as part of the library's East Asian Collection. UCSF Provost and University Librarian, later Chancellor, John B. de C. Saunders, M.D., founded the collection, which was expanded over the next 30 years by Librarian/Curator Atsumi Minami. Ms. Minami's dedication to the collection is evident in its comprehensiveness and fine quality. According to the libraries website, she frequently "traveled to Japan and China and purchased items from various smaller, private collections, acquiring the woodblock prints as well as hundreds of rare Chinese and Japanese medical texts, manuscripts, and painted scrolls." The prints are housed in the Library's Archives and Special Collections, and are often featured in exhibits in the library's gallery. Luckily for online visitors, this fascinating virtual exhibit is always just a mouse-click away.
The article was published on Booktryst (May 24, 2011) and is presented here by permission of the author. All Images from UCSF Japanese Woodblock Print Collection.