Maternal Health and Images of the Body Examined Through Japanese Ukiyo-e

Guest post by Manami Yasui, Manami is a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto, Japan and guest curator for the exhibition “Maternal Health and Images of the Body in Japanese Ukiyo-e.

We are pleased to announce the new exhibition, “Maternal Health and Images of the Body in Japanese Ukiyo-e,” which will be on view on the main floor of the UCSF Kalmanovitz Library at Parnassus Heights from November 2023 through December 2024. This exhibition explores the historical perspectives surrounding the human body and maternal health in Japan through the lens of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings.

The central question driving our selection of images, most of which come from the UCSF Japanese Woodblock Print Collection and the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) collection, is how was the human body represented in mid-19th-century Japan? Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese graphic art popularized from the 17th through the 19th-centuries. The exhibition uses a selection of ukiyo-e works and other artifacts from the 1820s to the 1880s. By drawing on various visual arts and medical media, we explore pregnancy and childbirth in early modern Japan and how birth control methods such as abortion and mabiki (infanticide or “thinning out”) were viewed at the time.

Depictions of pregnancy and the fetus

TenRealms 1885
“Ten Realms within the Body,” 体内十界之圖, 1885 by Utagawa Kuniteru III 歌川国輝(三代).

One important representation of the early modern epistemology of the human body from a Japanese lens is seen in this fascinating ukiyo-e print entitled the “Ten Realms within the Body” 体内十界之圖, 1885 by Utagawa Kuniteru III 歌川国輝(三代)(active ca. 1877-1896).  

This print depicts a Japanese woman wearing only an underskirt. She appears to be pregnant and is pointing at her ample abdomen. The interior of her abdomen depicts a series of scenes likened to a Buddhist mandala. The image is likely a parody of the famed “Ten Realms Mandala” (jp. Kanjin jukkai zu), which illustrates the ten states of Buddhist existence surrounding a central “heart” character. Of the ten realms, the upper five represent enlightened states, while the lower half includes one realm representing humanity and the remaining four realms representing “lesser beings,” such as demons or animals. Kuniteru’s version maintains a similar balance with each “realm” by representing facets of human society; however, this version connects Buddhist beliefs with the understandings of pregnancy and life choices during Kuniteru’s time.

RealizeOnesParentaLove 1880
“Realize One’s Parental Love,” 父母の恩を知る図, 1880. Utagawa, Yoshitora歌川芳虎

Putting the interior of the human body on display was one of the hallmarks of visual media during this period. People were interested in the invisible interior of the human body, and the ukiyo-e of the time responded to their desire to peer inside. Another popular set of prints depicts ten pregnant women, each with a fetus at a different stage of growth. While Western medical science measures the length of a full-term pregnancy at nine months (40 weeks), in early modern Japan, a full-term pregnancy was calculated according to the lunar calendar, and was divided into ten four-week periods. This explains why the women depicted in the ukiyo-e, “Realize One’s Parental Love” 父母の恩を知る図, 1880, Utagawa Yoshitora 歌川芳虎 depicts ten stages of growth.

The Chinese (Sinitic) medical body

DietAdviceHealthySexLife 1855
“Model Sexual Practices for Good Health,” 房事養生鑑, 1855. Unknown Artist.

At the same time, the human body in early modern Japan reflected a worldview grounded in Chinese (Sinitic) medical thought. This system classifies organs as consisting of “five viscera and six entrails.” The above print contains advice on conducting one’s sex life through the then-popular mode of “nourishing health” (yōjō), with detailed explanations on important reproductive organs such as the uterus. The small figures within each organ represent the constant motion and labor that each organ undertakes to keep the body functioning.

The introduction of Western anatomy to Japan

While most medical depictions of the body in early modern Japan were informed by Chinese (Sinitic) medicine, European anatomy books, many published in Dutch editions, were imported by Dutch merchants into the port of Dejima in Nagasaki, Kyushu, which was built in 1636. One example was “Remmelin’s Catoptrum Microcosmicum” (1619), which was introduced to Japan via its Dutch version, “Pinax Microcosmographicus” (1667). The book publishers painstakingly printed organs on small flaps of paper that are then layered on top of one another. This book attempted to illustrate holistically male and female bodies, and the inner organs in detail. When the reader flips open the layer depicting the womb, an image of a fetus appears.

CatoptrumMicrocosmicium 1619
“Catoptrum Microcosmicum”, 1619, Johann Remmelin (McGill University collection)

In this exhibition, you can compare both Remmelin’s original (UCSF Archives and Special Collections, 1619) and the Japanese translated edition (Nichibunken collection, 1772). We have also replicated the female body image from the Japanese translation for the exhibition. This provides visitors with a hands-on experience of “exploring” the text by “opening” the abdomen and “removing” the internal organs of the body.

We encourage you to enjoy these diverse images of pregnancy, childbirth, and bodily images from Japan’s Edo period (1603 -1868). We hope viewers will gain a better understanding of early modern Japanese practices around the body, and maternal health, including abortion and mabiki. Along with the UCSF Kalmanovitz Library exhibition, we are also planning to offer online exhibitions in Japanese, English, and Chinese. Please stay tuned for further information.

Exhibition opening reception

We invite the UCSF community and members of the public to attend our opening reception Wednesday, November 1, 2023, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the UCSF Kalmanovitz Library (Parnassus Heights). Admission is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be provided while supplies last.

Please register by Friday, October 31, 2023.


AnatomicalAtlasWholeBody 1772
『和蘭全躯内外分合図』”Anatomical Atlas of the Whole Body,” 1772 (Nichibunken collection)
本木了意訳、鈴木宗云撰次Motoki Ryōi, trans (c. 1682), Suzuki Shūun, ed.


The exhibition, Maternal Health and Images of the Body in Japanese Ukiyo-e, is a collaboration between the University of California, San Francisco Archives and Special Collections and the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the collaborators listed below and the many other colleagues who made this exhibition possible.

International Research Center for Japanese Studies

  • Manami Yasui, PhD, guest curator

Nichibunken Project Team

  • Lawrence Marceau, Noriko Itasaka, Lee I Zhuen Clarence, Michaela Kelly, Chihiro Saka, Hiroshi Fujioka, Ayako Ono, and Yoko Sakai

University of California, San Francisco Library

  • Polina Ilieva, Associate University Librarian for Collections and University Archivist

UCSF Project Team

  • Peggy Tran-Le, Kirk Hudson, and Jessica Crosby

With special thanks to

  • Stephen Roddy, University of San Francisco
  • Mark McGowan, exhibition graphic designer

Feature image credit: “Realize One’s Parental Love” 父母の恩を知る図, 1880. Utagawa, Yoshitora歌川芳虎, courtesy of the UCSF Archives and Special Collections.

#ColorOurCollections Coloring Book

Once again we contributed to the New York Academy of Medicine’s #ColorOurCollections. We’ve created a coloring book featuring images from our collection of Japanese woodblock prints. Please download the book, color, and tweet your creations @ucsf_archives using #ColorOurCollections.

Download the complete UCSF Archives 2022 Coloring Book here.

You can view other coloring books from participating institutions here. Happy coloring!

The Women Behind the Japanese Woodblock Print Collection

By Erin Hurley, User Services & Accessioning Archivist

One of UCSF Archives & Special Collections’ most famous and beloved collections is the Japanese Woodblock Print collection – a collection of over 400 colorful and informative woodblock prints on health-related themes, such as women’s health and contagious diseases like cholera, measles, and smallpox. According to the Library website dedicated to the prints, they “offer a visual account of Japanese medical knowledge in the late Edo and Meiji periods. The majority of the prints date to the mid-late nineteenth century, when Japan was opening to the West after almost two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed isolation.”[1] The collection has been used, most recently, in a documentary about woodblock prints to be aired on NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting network, and has been a subject of enduring interest to researchers. I’ve heard colleagues wonder aloud about how UCSF came to own this unique collection, so I did some research. Naturally, an enterprising curator and librarian – Atsumi Minami, MLS – is to thank for the collection’s arrival at UCSF.

Walters, Tom F., “Atsumi Minami with items from UCSF Library East Asian Collection,” 1968. UCSF History Collection.

While I was not able to find the exact dates of her employment at UCSF Library, I do know that Minami began working at UCSF Library in 1959, and soon took charge of a small collection of 70 titles of materials related to East Asian medicine started in 1963 by John B. de C.M. Saunders (a shortening of his full name, John Bertrand de Cusance Morant Saunders), then Provost and University Librarian.[1] Minami could read Japanese script, so she became responsible for the collection and was soon given free rein to begin collecting additional materials. In order to do this, Minami “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.”[2] Her collecting efforts spanned over 30 years, and produced a collection with over 10,000 titles. It would appear that Minami was still working at UCSF when this informative article was written for a 1986 issue of UCSF Magazine.[3] At the time that article was published, the East Asian medicine collection was also the only active collection of its kind in the U.S., making it even more notable.  

Another woman who was influential in shaping the East Asian collection was Ilza Veith, a German medical historian and former UCSF professor in both the Department of the History and Philosophy of Health Sciences and the Department of Psychiatry. Veith, who in 1947 was awarded the first ever U.S. the History of Medicine from Johns Hopkins University, was also awarded later, in 1975, the most advanced medical degree conferred in Japan, the Igaku hakase, from Juntendo University Medical School in Tokyo.  Veith was extremely knowledgeable about both Chinese and Japanese medicine, and, in her time at Hopkins, translated Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen, or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine – the oldest known document in Chinese medicine. Though the text has somewhat mythical origins that make its author and date a little difficult to determine, it probably dates from around 300 BC. Veith also helped shaped UCSF’s East Asian medicine collection by donating a number of her Japanese medical books. 

“Ilza Veith,” 1968. UCSF History Collection.

I would encourage anyone interested in the collection to browse the prints on our website, and to read more about their history via a finding aid on the Online Archive of California. Archives & Special Collections also houses the Ilza Veith papers. While we don’t yet have an Atsumi Minami collection, we welcome donations and would appreciate any information that the present-day UCSF community has about this amazing woman.

[1] “Glory of the Special Collections,” UCSF Magazine, V. 9, Issue #342, 1986:”Atsumi Minami”

[2] “About the Collection,” UCSF Japanese Woodblock Print Collection, 2007, Accessed April 6, 2021.

[3] “Glory of the Special Collections,” UCSF Magazine, V. 9, Issue #342, 1986:”Atsumi Minami”

[1] “About the Collection,” UCSF Japanese Woodblock Print Collection, 2007, Accessed April 6, 2021.

Fighting Measles

In recent weeks measles again became one of the main topics covered in the news stories. Not that long ago, before the advent of the vaccines, measles epidemics were a common occurrence around the globe. Back in the nineteenth century numerous hashika-e (measles pictures) from the UCSF Japanese Woodblock print collection served as guides to combat this disease. Many of them include a holly leaf (tarayō) believed to contain protective powers as well as recommendations for auspicious diet and and explanations how to persuade the measles kami (“Shinto term for god, divinity”*) to leave.

These charms when attached to a door or screen were supposed to protect the house and its inhabitants against measles:

Charm against measles. Utagawa Yoshitsuya, 1862.

Charm against measles. Utagawa Yoshitsuya, 1862.

Poetic charm against measles. Utagawa Yoshikatsu, 1862.

Poetic charm against measles. Utagawa Yoshikatsu, 1862.

Another print depicts three “mighty men” conquering measles.

Three mighty men conquering measles. Ochia, Yoshiiku, ca. 1870s.

Three mighty men conquering measles. Ochia Yoshiiku, ca. 1870s.

And the battle to eradicate measles continues…

Modern day narrative on battle against measles. Unknown artist, ca. 1860.

Modern day narrative on battle against measles. Unknown artist, ca. 1860.

Please visit the UCSF archives digital collection to view the remaining prints related to contagious diseases and read about their meaning.

*Japanese popular prints: from votive slips to playing cards. Rebecca Salter, 2006.

We’re on Zazzle!

We wanted to announce to all of you that a selection of our beloved treasures, here in the Archives & Special Collections, is featured in the UCSF Zazzle store. The online store allows you to purchase customizable note cards, tote bags, mugs, iPhone cases, water bottles and t-shirts that feature one-of-a-kind images from our collection.

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Recently, we’ve added items that showcase pieces in the “Pharmacy and Pharmacists” exhibition of Japanese Woodblock Prints– currently on display in the  UCSF Library.


The online store also includes items with images from past exhibitions of the Japanese Woodblock Prints Collection. These represent a cross-section of the collection, featuring colorful ukiyo-e scenes on topics such as women’s health, diet and nutrition, spirituality, views of foreigners, and traditional Chinese healing methods.


designall (3)designall (4)Items with historical UCSF photographs from the Photograph Collection are also available. Check out the fascinating views of campus from the turn of the twentieth century.


“Pharmacy and Pharmacists:” Japanese Woodblock Print Exhibit at the Library

In January of 2013 the Archives staff installed a new exhibit titled “Pharmacy and Pharmacists” in the first floor gallery of the Library that will be on display through the end of the year.

This exhibit presents a selection of Japanese prints portraying traditional drug compounding and distribution establishments. Numerous advertisements for drug stores carefully depict pre-modern shops which were open to the street and had several signs promoting proprietary medicine and other store specialties. On many prints the physician (identifiable by his bald head) can be seen consulting with the pharmacists. Around the store, assistants and apprentices are preparing herbal drugs by grinding and powdering medicinal plants, dispensing drugs to customers and delivering new shipments of herbs. Some streets in Tokyo and other cities had rows of wholesale and retail drug emporia boldly advertising their traditional and Western-style products. The artists also show people from different walks of life in the street scenes where drugstores serve as a backdrop for everyday activities, with two prints depicting views of Mt. Fuji.


Yagi Hall (Yagidō), 1884
Artist: Matsukawa Hanzan (Japanese, 1818-1882)
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
37.7 x 25.5 cm
Object ID: ucsf_p279
A Japanese print with Chinese writing depicting a large drug wholesale business in Osaka by the name of “Yagido.” The business specializes in imported traditional Chinese medicine and seems to be appealing to preferred customers via this advertisement.
More information about this image:

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