● Wolfgang Michel: Looking at Corpses – Negoro Tōshuku's 'True Shape of Human Bones' and its Place in Japanese Medical History
Wolfgang Michel: Looking at Corpses – Negoro Tōshuku‘s "True Shape of Human Bones" and its Place in Japanese Medical History. In: Michel/Yoshida/Oshima (ed.), Source Materials and Personalities IV. Nakatsu Municipal Museum for History and Folklore Medical Archive Series No. 11, Nakatsu, March 2012, pp. 42-89.

● Due to encoding problems some features have been changed. A pdf-file of the published version is available at Kyushu University Institutional Repository (QIR)


Looking at Corpses – Negoro Tōshuku's 'True Shape of Human Bones' and its Place in Japanese Medical History


In 1732 the ophtamologist Negoro Tōshuku (1698-1755) observed the decaying corpses of two criminals who had been burned and left to rot, presumably in the outskirts of Kyōto. Nine years later Negoro reworked his sketches, made coloured drawings of the skeletal remains and added extensive comments on the bones and their function. Decades later in 1781 the noted physician and philosopher Miura Baien copied the pictures as well as the explanations during his visit to the house of Negoro Tōshuku's son Tōrin, who was living in Nakatsu since 1765 as one of the domain physicians. Miura Baien was deeply impressed by the collection of astronomical and other Jesuit books from China, that were extremely difficult to smuggle into the country. A few months later Miura incorporated his copy into the anatomical book 'Residual remarks about creation' (Zōbutsu yotan). Based on this text medical historians praised Negoro's observations as an important prelude to the epoch-making dissection of a human cadaver by Yamawaki Tōyō in 1754. Then two large scale hanging-scrolls came up during the 1970s that are nowadays displayed in the Murakami Medical Archive in Nakatsu. Two further scrolls were identified a few decades later. This study discusses the background of the Negoro family, the related source materials, and the medical and cultural background of Negoro Tōshuku's observations.

A genealogical chart kept by Mr. Negoro Masateru and an outline of the historic background of his family written by Negoro Tōshuku in 1731 show that Negoro-style ophtamology has its roots in the monastery medicine of the Negoro Temple (Wakayama prefecture) and finally in the studies of Chinese medicine conducted by the founder of Shingon Buddhism Kūkai and his followers. Like in other fields of medicine too, monks versed in the treatment of eye diseases used to treat the majority of patients throughout the middle ages. With the rise of artisans and merchants during the 16th century and the waning influence of Buddhism, eventually 'civilian' ophtamologists appeared, one among them being the ancestor of the Negoro family.

The ophtamological writings of Negoro Tōshuku reveal an independent and self-confident scholar, who had acquired a considerable expertise and developed a new theory about the nature of the cataract that secured his place in the history of ophtamology. Being keenly aware of the structure and function of the eye he stressed the importance of own observations and a critical review of traditional techings, thus taking a position quite similar to that of early modern European scholars (e.g. in the Accademia dei Lincei).

At present only three versions of Negoro's 'True Shape of Human Bones' have been confirmed: Miura Baien's copy in a small book format, a pair of scrolls in the Murakami Medical Archive (Nakatsu) and another pair in the Museum of Traditional Medicine (Morinomiya College of Medical Arts and Sciences). A comparison of the paper's properties, the brush writing, the depiction of bones etc. revealed that both pairs of scrolls are only copies, the latter being older than that in Nakatsu. With the exemption of a few minor writing mistakes, both scroll pairs are identical and convey the large scale design of Negoro, but neither of them shows some important features (a bone, some lines, captions etc.), Miura had recorded in 1781. 

Within the framework of the history of dissections Negoro Tōshuku deserves a prominent position, but it is still not clear why he ventured out into the field of anatomy. A broader review of related material revealed, that Negoro was not the first physician who turned his attention to human skelets. The world's oldest book on forensic medicine, the 'Washing away of unjust imputations' (Xǐ Yuān Lù) by Sòng Cí (1247), already contains a chapter on the 'Investigation of bones'. This text and similar books published on forensic medicine like Wang yu's 'Abolition of unjust imputations' (Wū Yuān Lù) eventually came to Japan too. Advertisements in Edo period Japanese books reveal, that the Wū Yuān Lù was re-printed repeatedly since the latter half of the 17th century.

Furthermore, the contributions of Edo period practitioners of osteopathic manipulative medicine (seikotsu-i) to the progress in anatomical studies have not found sufficient attention of historians yet. One of the outstanding pioneers was Kōshi Hōyoku, who, based on 17 Chinese books and his own extensive observations, layed the foundations for an autochtone tradition in the 'Therapeutical Treasures of Osteopathic Manipulation' (Honetsugi ryōji chōhōki), printed shortly after Negoro's observations and years before Yamawaki's dissection. As these therapies did not work out without an intimate knowledge of bones, articulated joints, muscles and tendons, Kōshi devoted a great part of his writings to anatomical details. His illustrations were significantly better than those in any other conteporary Japanese medical publication. Even after Western anatomical teachings had found their way into Japanese medical literature, publications such as the 'New Book of Osteopathic Manipulation' (Seikotsu shinsho) by Kagami Bunken (1755-1819) continued to demonstrate the high level of research in these circles.

Last not least, in order to liberate oneself from sensual desires, contemplations on the impurity of a decaying corpse (kuso-kan), preferably the corpse of a beautiful young woman, were part of the exercises among monks and ardent devotees since the early days of Buddhism in Japan. Graphic depictions of the nine stages of decomposition served this purpose in various formats, including hanging scrolls, handscrolls, and printed books. In addition to quotations from Buddhist textual sources, poems in classical Chinese were added to these 'Nine stage pictures' (kusō-zu).

Having grown up in a family deeply rooted in Shingon Buddhistic traditions, Negoro Tōshuku's encounter with decaying corpses inevitably must have evoked such pictures, among them one of the whole skeleton followed by one showing the disjointing. In contrast to the later dissections conducted by Yamawaki Tōyō and others, the mere observation of a naturally decaying body was still within the traditional conceptual framework. Therefore the step from contemplation to observation was comparatively small, especially for an ophtamologist believing in the power of the human eye as a mean of gaining new knowledge.


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