Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 23, 2014
Maki Fukuoka The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 304 pp.; 39 ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780804777902)

While doing research in Leiden, Maki Fukuoka discovered an unpublished manuscript entitled “Honzō shashin,” which was brought from Japan to Holland by the German physician Phillip Franz von Siebold. Honzō refers to materia medica; the term shashin means “photography” today, but the manuscript was written in 1826, decades before the medium of photography was introduced to Japan in the 1850s. What did shashin mean to Mizutani Hōbun, who compiled the manuscript and led a scholarly group called Shōhyaku-sha in the Owari domain? What does this tell us about Japanese photography, as we now understand it? Fukuoka’s encounter with the manuscript in Leiden establishes the research inquiry she engages with in The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan.

The volume brings a much-welcomed new perspective to the field of Japanese art history. The monograph is, first and foremost, highly interdisciplinary in nature. Fukuoka expands the scope of art history, in which she is trained, by studying pictorial illustrations and texts not only from art museums, but also from libraries, natural history museums, and botanical gardens. The interdisciplinarity of the book makes it comparable to another book on late Edo, Timon Screech’s The Lens Within the Heart: The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002), which also explores the intersection between science and visual culture. Fukuoka’s study, which probes the relationship between knowledge, text, and image, is a contribution to intellectual and medical histories of the late Edo period in addition to the history of art and visual culture of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japan. This monograph is an important addition to books on the history of Japanese photography, such as The History of Japanese Photography, edited by Anne Tucker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) (click here for review) (click here for review); Reflecting Truth: Japanese Photography in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere and Mikiko Hirayama (Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2005); and Photography and Japan by Karen M. Fraser (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).

Although the medium of photography was introduced to Japan from the West, Fukuoka challenges teleological narratives about Western influences that would erase preexisting indigenous discourses. Rather, she seeks to illuminate a complex network of medical, botanical, and intellectual practices and ideas that Japanese intellectuals brought to photography when they encountered it. The book can thus be situated within a larger methodological trend in Japanese modern art history that looks closely at how Japanese artists actively and critically engaged with—rather than passively accepted—Western artistic movements, styles, and media. Notable works in this field include Alicia Volk’s In Pursuit of Universalism: Yorozu Tetsugorō and Japanese Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) and Ming Tiampo’s Gutai: Decentering Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) (click here for review).

The Premise of Fidelity aims to investigate how the term shashin (translated as “transposition of the real”) was conceptualized in the late Edo period and how it informed the discourse of photography when the medium of photography was introduced to Japan. To this end, Fukuoka devotes the majority of the book to explaining how the term shashin was used by the Shōhyaku-sha, a group of scholars, including practicing physicians and pharmacologists, who studied materia medica (honzōgaku), or a collection of illustrated botanical plants. The activities of the group, which ranged from collecting botanical specimens and organizing exhibitions to publishing their research findings, were so important that some members later became leading figures in Western learning and were hired by the Edo and Meiji governments. Although Hōbun does not provide a precise definition of shashin, Fukuoka argues that the Shōhyaku-sha’s use of the term was embedded within a particular scientific and medical discourse of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in which they sought to determine the “real” by critically reassessing knowledge about, and discrepancy between, Chinese texts and their actual, local environment in Japan.

What has made the rich indigenous history of the term shashin obscure and forgotten, Fukuoka argues, is the equation between shashin and pictorial realism, made by Shiba Kōkan, which still prevails. Kōkan used shashin to describe the Western method of illusionism, distinguishing it from Chinese and Japanese representational methods that he regarded as inferior. When photography was introduced, Kōkan linked this method of representation to the device of photography, calling it shashinkyō (“literally, ‘lens/mirror that does shashin’” (5)). Kōkan’s association of shashin with pictorial realism has enabled historians of Japanese photography to consider the term shashin as “already embodying pictorial realism and an affinity for Western pictorial traditions” (6) and gloss over competing and different uses of the term developed by Kōkan’s contemporaries, such as members of the Shōhyaku-sha.

Fukuoka claims in her introduction that the study of shashin by the Shōhyaku-sha contributes significantly to the study of photography. Fukuoka aligns herself with specialists of photography in Asia such as Christopher Pinney, Karen Strassler, and Rosalind C. Morris, who, in the past twenty years, have produced scholarship that carefully explores different economic, social, and political contexts in different regions and historical periods. According to Fukuoka, these specialists have demonstrated that “photography is not an autonomous technology that produces consistently hegemonic experiences and representations, but rather a parasitic medium that latches on to a historical and cultural context to transform preexisting local practices and needs, while also creating new hybrid visual expressions” (9). Building on this model of scholarship, Fukuoka writes, “What I offer in my exposition of the genealogy of shashin is an account of photographic history in Japan that differs from—and thus questions—the received narrative” (10).

Although The Premise of Fidelity’s central concern is the shashin/photograph, the book is also very much about materia medica. It would therefore have been helpful if it had provided more in the way of basic information, especially in the introduction, about materia medica in general and the history of materia medica in Japan in particular—areas with which specialists of modern art history or photography, surely the book’s target audience, might not be familiar. How much has been written about Japanese materia medica? How is this book different from other studies on the topic? These questions are partially answered in chapter 2, but they should have been addressed earlier to give readers a larger scholarly picture from the beginning. Also, even though shashin has come to refer exclusively to photography, it would be interesting to know how, if at all, the practices around it affected the discourse on other pictorial arts, especially painting.

The book consists of an introduction, five chapters, and an appendix (a translation of Takahashi Yuichi’s “Yōgakyoku tekigen” from 1865). Chapter 1, “The Eye of the Shōhyaku-sha: Between Seeing and Knowing,” describes the historical context in which the Shōhyaku-sha emerged. The chapter opens by recounting the episode in which Shōhyaku-sha members brought “Honzō shashin” to Siebold in Dejima to ask him to utilize his knowledge of Linnaean taxonomy to assess the plants included in the manuscript. The episode epitomizes the larger intellectual and medical discourses of the late Edo period, in which intellectuals became increasingly critical of knowledge obtained from Chinese texts and turned instead to Western knowledge. Particularly important to this discourse was the rise of Practical Learning (jitsugaku), which treated nature as the ultimate source of knowledge and encouraged direct observation. The late Edo period also saw the growing availability of Western medicine, and some physicians began incorporating Western medicine for medical efficiency in addition to Chinese medicine.

If chapter 1 offers a macro view of the Shōhyaku-sha, chapter 2 provides its micro view. In reviewing the history of materia medica in Japan, the second chapter introduces problems confronting the group. Japanese materia medica were originally translations of Chinese classical texts; Compendium of Materia Medica in Japan (Wago honzō kōmoku (1689))—Okamoto Ippo’shin’s translation of Li Shizen’s Compedium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu)—is a good example. By the time of Kaibara Ekken, however, scholars became aware of problems associated with translated texts: first of all, translators did not necessarily have knowledge about the book’s medical content; second, there were discrepancies between flora listed in Chinese texts and those that can be found in Japan. It was precisely in this context that Itō Keisuke, a member of the Shōhyaku-sha, compiled Nominal Differentiations in Western Materia Medica (Taisei honzō meiso) in 1829, introducing to Japan the Western Linnaean system, a kind of taxonomy that categorizes animals and plants into a hierarchical system, in order to assess “the real” (shin) qualities of the plants.

Chapter 3, “Modes of Observation and the Real: Exhibition Practices of the Shōhyaku-sha,” examines the group’s activity beyond publications of materia medica and focuses on their unique practice of organizing public exhibitions, called honzōkai. Although it incorporated the Western Linnaean taxonomical system, Keisuke’s Nominal Differentiations in Western Materia Medica did not solve all the problems that the Shōhyaku-sha encountered. The group therefore organized exhibitions on a monthly basis from 1827 to 1874 in an attempt to obtain information about Japanese medical flora from the public—farmers, merchants, and samurais. In the interactive forum of honzōkai, participants were asked to bring in medical plants, provide knowledge about them, and contest any information displayed in the exhibitions. The exhibitions, which displayed actual plants, were the Shōhyaku-sha’s attempt to identify, recognize, and distinguish the real (shin) from the fake (gi).

Chapter 4, “Picturing the Real: Questions of Fidelity and Processes of Pictorial Representation,” considers the role of pictorial illustrations in the Shōhyaku-sha’s materia medica and is the culmination of the previous three chapters. Visual representation was a crucial part of the Shōhyaku-sha’s pursuit of identifying shin. It was through ink rubbing (shin’ei) and copper-etching (shashin) that the group communicated and archived the shin of the plant: shin is here defined not only as a faithful pictorial representation of the plant but also its verified existence. The importance attached to the confirmed existence of the depicted object, indicated through the assumed physical contact between the object and the image-maker, is what makes the Shōhyaku-sha’s definition of shin unique and different from that of their contemporaries. Kawahira Keiga, for example, used the language of Chinese literati painting to describe the concept of shin; for Iwasaki Kan’en, representations of details were indispensable elements for representing shin.

Chapter 5, “Shashin in the Capital: The Last Stage of Metamorphosis,” is the most exciting chapter, linking the study of the Shōhyaku-sha to the medium of photography in the last years of the Edo period. Fukuoka argues that when photography was introduced, two different concepts of shashin merged—the one utilized by the Shōhyaku-sha and the one developed by Shiba Kōkan and shared by Edo government authorities. Tracing the last evolution of the term shashin, Fukuoka examines shashin as defined by three different figures: Keisuke, the central member of the Shōhyaku-sha; Takahashi Yuichi, the Japanese oil painter who collaborated with Keisuke at the Academy for Western Studies sponsored by the Edo/Meiji government; and Yanagawa Shunsan, Keisuke’s assistant and an author of the Illustrated Book on Photography (Shashinkyō zusetsu (1868–69)), the first systematic publication on photography in Japan. By the time Shunsan wrote the book, shashin had lost the Shōhyaku-sha’s concern for fidelity between image, text, and the depicted object; but Shunsan still conceptualized shashin/photography, like the Shōhyaku-sha, as something that records, witnesses, and testifies. Discussing how Shiba Kōkan’s definition of shashin coupled with pictorial realism came to triumph in the history of Japanese photography would have made a great conclusion to the book.

The Premise of Fidelity is thoroughly researched and written clearly and eloquently. It will prove an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Japanese art history, Japanese intellectual history, medical history, and the visual culture of the Edo and Meiji periods, history of photography, and transnational studies. Given the recent growth in appreciation of interdisciplinary research and visual culture, Fukuoka has written a pioneering book.

Asato Ikeda
Assistant Professor, Art History and Music Department, Fordham University