Comparative Guts

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Sugita Gempaku’s Kaitai shinsho

(解体新書, “New Book of Anatomy”; 1774)

Sugita Gempaku undertook his epoch-making translation of a Dutch anatomical manual before he could read Dutch. This point is key: What persuaded him of the manual’s truth was not its text, which he initially couldn’t comprehend, but rather, its images, and more specifically their style. For him, the eye-opening encounter with the realism of European anatomical plates—a style of picturing designed, as he saw them, to “copy things as they truly are” (shashin 写真)—was an experience akin to enlightenment. The appeal of this new style lay above all in this: it mirrored precisely the outlook needed in the new world of hard economic facts—a practical, realistic outlook that refused the religious and metaphysical speculations of the Chinese past and looked at the viscera as tangible things, right there, before the eyes. (2)


(2) Shigehisa Kuriyama, “Between eye and mind: Japanese anatomy in the eighteenth century,” in Charles Leslie and Allan Young eds. Paths of Asian medical knowledge  (University of California Press, 1992).