Comparative Guts

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Hisa Kuriyama

Harvard University

Surviving stone tools suggest that the Japanese archipelago was inhabited as far back as 30,000 BCE; the rope-patterned pottery of the oldest local cultures studied by archaeologists date from around 4000 BCE. Written documents in Japanese appear only much later: the first books, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, were compiled a few decades after the founding, in 710 CE, of Nara as the first capital of a centralized Japanese state.

The Kojiki and Nihon shoki were transcribed using Chinese characters. Nara, for its part, was laid out to according to Chinese principles of fengshui and designed to mirror the Chinese city of Chang’an. Thus, from the first books and first capital we find a pattern that would long endure: up through the mid-nineteenth century, practices learned from China exerted broad sway over Japanese life. But then, in 1868, a radical reorientation: the reformers of the Meiji Restoration turned away from ancient Chinese precedents and pushed instead for new institutions fashioned on Western models, pursuing a future that would soon be dubbed modernity.

The understanding of the human body evolved in parallel with this history. The earliest Japanese medical text, the Ishimpō (医心方, 984), was a compilation of extracts from Chinese works, and until the late nineteenth century the tradition of the foundational classic of Chinese medicine, the Huangdi neijing, defined the scholarly mainstream in Japan. But in 1874, Meiji rulers decreed that future doctors would all have to be trained in Western medicine, and soon, even schoolchildren began to learn the rudiments of Western anatomy. For centuries, Japanese had had subscribed to Chinese beliefs about the wuzang liufu 五臓六腑 (five solid and six hollow viscera) as the core of personal being. By the early twentieth century, such beliefs sounded distinctly quaint.

Historians today refer to the period just before the Meiji Restoration as early modern Japan (1603-1868)—a name that reflects, in part, how Japanese attitudes and practices had begun to diverge from traditional models even before the modernizing reforms of Meiji times. And indeed, public interest in Western ideas of the body was sparked as early as 1774 by the publication of Sugita Gempaku’s illustrated translation of a Dutch anatomical manual (fig. 1). As the work commonly credited with launching Western Studies in Japan, Gempaku’s Kaitai shinsho may be the only title in medical history known to nearly all Japanese today. Yet the other illustrations featured here spotlight how the perspective of Western anatomy long remained a mere curiosity—how the Japanese imagination of the guts remained, up into Meiji times, centered on the traditional wuzang liufu. But these illustrations also show how the wuzang liufu were already being reimagined in non-traditional ways. (figg.2, 3, 4, 5) The reimagination of the guts in early modern Japan owed above all to the country’s transformation into “an economic society”—a society in which the management of nearly all matters, from the conduct of government to the care of the self, was inevitably entwined with the need to grapple with the powerful new sway of money. The lofty moral and metaphysical abstractions of the ancient Chinese past, which emphasized human embeddedness in the cosmos, seemed increasingly irrelevant. In the highly urbanized culture of early modern Japan—by the start of the 18th century, the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo) already counted a million people—the dynamics of a person’s inner life were more readily conceived in terms of the characters and activities that dominated life in the surrounding commercial world: merchants and laborers, courtesans and actors, counting money, earning money, indulging in feasts and entertainment.

(1) On the notion of an economic society and its rise in Japan, see Akira Hayami, “The establishment of economic society and the Edo period,” in A. Hayami, Japan’s Industrious Revolution; Economic and Social Transformations in Early Modern Japan (Springer, 2015).