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The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Japanese scroll illustrating the dissection of an executed criminal

Japanese scroll illustrating the dissection of an executed criminal

This 1900 cm long hand drawn scroll from the Edo Period is an important record of the most famous of all early human dissections to take place in Japan. These dissections materially changed the Japanese knowledge of human anatomy. It is one of several scrolls that were prepared following the dissection of Heijiro, a convicted criminal, at age 40. The dissection occurred in 1783 at Fushimi, south of Kyoto, and was overseen by the physician and scholar Nankei Tachibana (1753-1806). The chief artist was Ranshu Yoshimura. Genshun Koishi (1743-1808), a physician interested in Western medicine, also attended the autopsy and wrote explanations, using many anatomical terms from the famous Kaitai Shinsho [A New Work in Anatomy & Dissection] (1st ed.: 1774), “a milestone in the history of medicine, and particularly of anatomy, in Japan, marking as it did the transition from the traditional Chinese medical teachings to the period when medical knowledge (anatomy) was to be based strictly upon human dissection and when anatomical inferences were to be confirmed ‘in the flesh,’ so to speak. Kaitai shinsho was the first Japanese translation of a Western anatomical work.”–Mestler, “A Galaxy of Old Japanese Medical Books,” Part I, p. 311.

The paintings in this scroll are uncommonly refined and detailed and vividly colored. Each scene in this scroll contains contemporary notes of the names of the organ or bone, function, weight, description of color and texture, etc. There are a number of references to the Kaitai Shinsho.

The beginning of the scroll gives the criminal’s first name (last name unknown) and states that he was executed for repeated thefts. Following this is an anterior view of the decapitated body, after which is a very finely detailed view of the head and a cross-section of the neck where the decapitation took place. Next is a depiction of the chest opened with muscles exposed. The following image depicts the lungs and diaphragm with the rib cage split open. A lung has been removed from the body and inflated using a bamboo stem. Then we see the lower abdomen peeled open and exposed. This is followed by a magnificent view of the entire chest and abdomen exposed with the organs still in place. The sexual organs have been removed.

This is followed by an image of the tip of the penis and a cross-section of the testicles. Then there are two very dramatic views — front and back — of various organs (lungs, diaphragm, liver, spleen, gallbladder, intestines, kidney, and bladder) all hanging from a bamboo rod, in magnificent color. Next we see the emptied chest cavity, exposing the skeletal frame. Then, the flesh of the back and one leg has been removed, exposing muscle and bones. Next we see the leg dissected, showing the femur, patella, tibia, and fibula. There follows a dramatic portrayal of the hip joint and femur.

The following images are dissections of the hand and dissected foot, from the top and from the bottom. There are further images of cross-sections of the thigh, views of the lung, heart and liver, spleen, kidneys (all with many dissected views), etc.

Now we proceed to the head: we see the various stages of the dissection of the head including the face after removal of the skin, the jaws, many views of the skull, brain, eyeballs, tongue, etc. The following series of images are of the spine, the hip bone, stomach, pancreas, large and small intestines, etc.

Contributed by anonymous