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Women's Health

by Laura W. Allen

A number of the prints in the collection deal with women's health, including some vivid depictions of pregnancy. At the beginning of the Meiji era, the bunmei kaika, or "civilization and enlightenment" movement, introduced a more scientific outlook in many areas of Japanese life, including attitudes toward pregnancy and childbirth. Anatomical drawings from the West, available widely for the first time, provided models for the representation of such themes as the stages of fetal gestation.

A diptych from 1880, titled "Information on Pregnancy," demonstrates how those models were adapted for the Japanese audience. In the right half of the print are ten egg-shaped portraits of women in various stages of pregnancy. Their open robes reveal a cut-away view of the uterus, with the fetus floating against a red background. Counted from conception forward, they are labeled as views of the ten months of pregnancy.

In a set of five red spheres at the left are the different presentations at delivery: at top, in a slightly larger circle, is the typical cephalic (head-first) presentation, followed by shoulder presentation (the arm emerges first), multiple birth (twins), footling breech, complete breech, and the delivery of a breech baby. Prints like these must have created quite a sensation when they were produced, providing as they did the latest, up-to-date scientific information.

"Pregnant women playing in summer heat - 5 heads with 10 bodies" is the title of another, more entertaining image of the stages of fetal development by Utagawa Kunitoshi (1847-1899). At first glance, it appears that this group of pregnant women is performing acrobatics in the nude; with the exception of a sash tied around the midriff of each woman, they are naked, though their genitals and breasts are artfully concealed.

Upon closer inspection, one realizes that each head is attached to two bodies, and that the bodies are cleverly linked so that the lower bodies each appear to be shared by two women. Connecting these shared heads, arms, buttocks, and legs are ten torsos, each revealing an image of a growing fetus. The fan held by the woman at center says "five heads," and the abdomens are labeled from the first to the tenth month. Above the women is written further information about the course of pregnancy.

A print dating from the mid-1850s shows the internal workings of a woman's body as a kind of Rube Goldberg apparatus operated by a host of tiny female workers. This imaginative rendering is titled "Dietary Advice for a Good Sex Life," and the woman is not a housewife but a geisha in full regalia: an elaborate coiffure spiked with a dozen large hairpins and combs, and a brilliantly patterned robe over the requisite, provocative red undergarment. She is smoking a long pipe, her left hand clutching a wad of tissues atop a black and gold lacquer smoking box.

Another print, titled "Model for a Healthy Diet," represents a man's body in the same manner, although male laborers occupy his gut. Presumably he too is a habitué of the pleasure quarter, as he is shown partially unclothed, a sake cup lifted to his mouth, and a carp, a symbol of virility, set out on a porcelain dish before him. Two related prints use the same cut-away perspective to portray a man's internal functions, as dramatized by kabuki actors.



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