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Art and Science in Japanese Woodblock-Printed Books

of the Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries

Iwasaki Tsunemasa, Honzō zufu, vol. 9, Spring orchid, Cymbidium virescens Lindl. (Orchidaceae)

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Iwasaki (Kan’en)Tsunemasa  (1786-1842), Honzō zufu 本草圖譜  (Illustrated manual of plants). Tokyo: 95 volumes with double leaves, East Asian style, in 10 cases. Color woodcut, 25.4 x 17.4 cm. Spencer Library (Special Collections) D1484.


Iwasaki Tsunemasa was active in Edo (modern Tokyo), then the center of botanical and zoological studies in Japan, and served as superintendent of a botanical garden belonging to the shogun. The Spencer Research Library collection also includes his two-volume work on horticulture, Somoku sodategusa (Propagation of plants and trees), but the extensive and fully illustrated Honzō zufu was his crowning glory.


Richard Rudolph discussed the Honzō zufu by Iwasaki Tsunemasain a paper for a conference on bibliography and natural history held at the University of Kansas in 1964. At the time, he was chair of the Department of Oriental Languages at University of California, Los Angeles. 

Rudolph’s essay places Iwasaki’s monumental the Honzō zufu in the history of East Asian illustrated botanical literature, specifically the materia medica, or bencao (honzō in Japanese), tradition of China and Japan. Bencao generally cover plants, animals, and minerals, but some, like Iwasaki’s, only focus on flora. Iwasaki, who was a botanist and superintendent of a botanical garden, describes his motive and method of working in his preface for the Honzō zufu:


Although some previous works have explanations of excellent quality, the fact is that they overemphasize the explanations and neglect the illustrations. And although some of them do have illustrations, they are sketchy and poorly executed. They have been copied and recopied so many times that one can scarcely distinguish between a flower and fruit, and a tiger can be mistaken for a cat. Those who later studied these works were utterly confused by them. What a pity! That is the reason why I made this illustrated manual…I personally hunted and collected plants in the mountains and fields and set them out in gardens and pots. Eventually, I had over 2,000 varieties and I made drawings from the living plants, at different seasons, of their stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits. I did this for over twenty years, and then I arranged them in a number of volumes and named them the Illustrated Manual of Plants (“free translation” by Rudolph).

For foreign plants, Iwasaki drew on foreign sources, such as Dutch and German books, and he added notes on plants imported from Holland, China, Korea, and the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa). In many cases, he reports on the time of importation and the growth of seeds, bulbs, roots, or whole plants in specific botanical gardens.


The original manuscript edition consisted of ninety-two volumes with over 2,000 watercolor paintings. Only four volumes were printed in his lifetime. “The manuscript copy,” Rudolph writes, “was so beautiful, and sets of it, and even separate volumes, became so truly ‘excessively rare,’ that a new edition was obviously needed. In the early twentieth century, the Society for the Publication of the Honzō zufu was organized to undertake the printing a complete color woodblock edition, which was accomplished between 1916 and 1921. Botanist Shirai Mitsutarō (1863-1932) created an index of Japanese and international scientific names for each volume and added a history of the Honzō zufu and biography of Iwasaki Tsunemasa in volume 93. A two-volume index to the whole collection, containing Japanese and Linnaean indexes, was published in 1922.


The delicate multicolored illustrations are either a full page or cover two pages. Some of the images make use of fine, even outlines, as can be seen in the depiction of the spring orchid, but the emphasis is on color. Often the color is applied in the so-called boneless method, i.e. without ink outlines, as can be seen in the other examples illustrated on this page, which rely entirely on color. Both the outline-and-color and boneless methods trace their roots to Chinese flower painting. Some of the compositions, notably those that arise from one corner and employ diagonal movements or divisions of the picture space, also echo Chinese pictorial formulas. In short, Iwasaki was a botanist presenting specimens artistically.


Although Iwasaki’s goals were botanical, he not only displayed his knowledge of art in his technical and aesthetic choices, but included references to Chinese art and literature in some of his inscriptions. The annotation for the “spring orchid,” for example, recalls a description of an orchid by the famous Song-dynasty calligrapher Huang Tingjian (1045-1105). The note accompanying the “day lily” cites the famous Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting published in Qing-dynasty (1644-1911). From the standpoint of contemporary botanists, his images provide sufficient detail to place the plants into general categories, but they lack the accurate depiction required to distinguish individual species. The images are more artistic than scientific and generate impressions rather than providing precise information.


Richard C. Rudolph, “Illustrated Botanical Works in China and Japan,” in Bibliography and Natural History, Essays Presented at a Conference Convened in June 1964 by Thomas R. Buckman (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Libraries, 1966), 110-120.


Tokutaro Ito,  “On the History of Botany in Japan,” Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 25 (1887): 26-27.


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