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During the some 150 years before and shortly after Japan’s opening to the West in 1854, woodblock printing in Japan reached unparalleled levels of technological perfection, as well as of circulation and commercialization. One of the main reasons for this tremendous success was the seamless blend of words and pictures, in colour and in black-and-white – the manifold forms of integration of "written texts" and "visual texts" that the technique allowed. It resulted in media attractive even to the less well-educated, and which could cater to a variety of demands. This project investigates the impacts of pre-modern printing culture on the modern "information society".

Scientific collections and exhibitions

Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716), Carl Peter Thunberg (1743–1828) and Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796–1866) are world-renowned for their contribution to the knowledge of Japanese flora. Much less known, however, is the fact grounded on numerous collections in European museums and herbariums that their findings would not have been possible without the support of the locals, who had developed an interest in collecting botanical probes independent from these European researchers, though they did seek them out in order to establish their own knowledge in an international frame. In fact, despite the reservations the authorities had toward the sciences as a potential threat to the desired political and social status quo, the Edo period (ca. 1600-1868) witnessed the blossoming of an interest in collecting natural produce that increasingly exceeded the mere economic use and partly led to an attempt at a taxonomic acquisition of nature comparable to the kind that had emerged in Europe with the Age of Enlightenment. For Europe, scientists like Paula Findlen have shown how important the collection and exhibition of nature was in the aristocratic context as they glorified the role of the owner as a "lord" and ruler over nature before these collections actually began to form the basis for research institutions. In Japan, feudal landowners served as collectors and patrons who, for example, maintained botanical gardens or nurseries which also guaranteed financial support for natural scientists. At the same time, citizens also began to found scientific societies that presented their "findings" to the public at randomly scheduled exhibitions, and the publication of corresponding illustrated wood-block prints seemed to have been more prominent than permanent "objective" collections. In the long run, this project should result in a monograph that illuminates this Japanese "special road" to the natural sciences.


Susanne FORMANEK, Sepp LINHART (ed.), 2005
Written Texts – Visual Texts. Woodblock-printed Media in Early Modern Japan. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing.

Susanne FORMANEK, Sepp LINHART (ed.), 1995
Buch und Bild als gesellschaftliche Kommunikationsmittel in Japan einst und jetzt. Wien: Literas.

Project data