19th Century Japanese Woodblock Prints Creatively Illustrate the Inner Workings of the Human Body

Folks with a pass­ing knowl­edge of ukiyo‑e, the Japan­ese wood­block print art form pop­u­lar in the 17th through 19th cen­turies, will be famil­iar with its land­scapes, as well as its por­traits of cour­te­sans and kabu­ki actors. But often these prints were edu­ca­tion­al, demon­strat­ed by these very odd anatom­i­cal prints that pro­mote good health as it relates to our inter­nal work­ings.

Long before ani­mat­ed mon­sters warned us about our mucus-filled chests, Japan­ese artists like Uta­gawa Kunisa­da (1786–1865) filled the guts of these men and women with lit­tle work­ers, mak­ing sure the human body worked like a func­tion­ing vil­lage or town.

In the first print, Inshoku Yojo Kaga­mi (“Mir­ror of the Phys­i­ol­o­gy of Drink­ing and Eat­ing”), a man dines on fish and drinks sake. Inside, lit­tle men scur­ry about a pool wrapped in intestines, stoke a fire under the heart, all the while a schol­ar keeps ref­er­ence mate­ri­als near­by. Down below lone­ly fig­ures guard the “urine gate” and the “feces gate,” sure­ly one of the worst jobs in all the body econ­o­my.

One of Kunisada’s stu­dents cre­at­ed a print for the women, focus­ing on the repro­duc­tive organs, called Boji Yojo Kaga­mi (“Rules of Sex­u­al Life”). Keen eyed view­ers will note that the minia­ture work­ers here are all women, so at least there’s some equal­i­ty at play.

The two prints were meant as instruc­tion­al, point­ing out best health prac­tices, and warn­ing against overindul­gence and excess.

Oth­er prints are just as inven­tive: a back and abdomen cov­ered in chil­dren play­ing famil­iar games; anoth­er fea­tur­ing pop­u­lar kabu­ki actors stand­ing in for var­i­ous organs. (Now, that is just cry­ing out for a mod­ern remake). The last print shows a preg­nant woman whose bel­ly con­tains Tainai jukkai no zu (Ten realms with­in the body), a Bud­dhist idea that you can read more about here. As for their func­tion inside the womb, that is for oth­ers of a high­er con­scious­ness to dis­cern.

via Spoon & Tam­a­go

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Map­ping Emo­tions in the Body: A Finnish Neu­ro­science Study Reveals Where We Feel Emo­tions in Our Bod­ies

A Sub­way Map of Human Anato­my: All the Sys­tems of Our Body Visu­al­ized in the Style of the Lon­don Under­ground

“Man as Indus­tri­al Palace,” the 1926 Lith­o­graph Depict­ing the Human Body as a Mod­ern Fac­to­ry, Comes to Life in a New Ani­ma­tion

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.