Of Madness, Murder, and Measles: The Meiji Period (1868-1912) Craze for Pictorial Dictionaries

By Dr. Tara M. McGowan

The beginning of the Meiji Reformation is typically traced back to 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in his famous “black ships,” opening Japan to trade with the West after more than 200 years of relative seclusion. Prior to Commodore Perry’s arrival, only limited trade had been allowed with the Dutch and Chinese, primarily through the Island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki. By 1858, however, Japan had agreed to open five new ports in Hakone, Yokohama, Nagasaki, Niigata, and Kobe over the following six years.

Figure 1. Western steamships, in Ijin Seiyo shi 異人西洋誌 (An illustrated guide to the foreigners of the West) by Kanagaki Robun and artist Utagawa Yoshiiku. Yushima: Yoshidaya Takichi, circa 1870-1880. (Cotsen 99393)

By the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the floodgates to foreign trade had been opened, leading to a surge of interest among the general public to learn English and other Western languages. A “mania for sideways writing” (yokomoji ryūko 横文字流行) inspired humorous and sometimes ill-judged attempts to meet the demand by authors with little to no knowledge of the language.

Figure 2. Foreigners on the streets of Yokohama, in Ijin Seiyo shi. (Cotsen 99393)

Among the many Meiji-period pictorial dictionaries held in the Cotsen Children’s Library collection, there is a particularly intriguing incomplete set of two volumes (of an original three-volume set), titled Dōkai Eigo zue 童解英語圖會 (Illustrated English for children). The first volume also contains a parallel title in English: The Pictoral [sic] English and Japan Language. Printed between 1870 and 1871, these volumes became available right around the peak of production for these manuals (Meiji 4-5, i.e., 1871-1872), but what makes them notable is the caliber of both the artist and author in their respective fields. The former was a well-known ukiyoe artist and the latter, a popular Edo-period gesaku fiction writer. The artist, illustrating under the name Keisai Kanjin 蕙齋閑人 is better known as Ochiai Yoshiiku 落合芳幾 (1833-1904) (or Utagawa Yoshiiku), a student of the now world-renowned ukiyoe artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳 (1798-1861). After Kuniyoshi’s death, Yoshiiku succeeded him in his reputation for humorous and satirical prints, but he was also known for frequent collaboration with popular gesaku writers, including Kanagaki Robun 仮名垣魯文 (1829–1894) (Figs. 1 and 2), and Jōno Saigiku 条野採菊 (1832-1902), the compiler of Illustrated English for Children, who appears here under the pen name Rōgetsutei Chinjin 弄月亭陳人 but also published under the name Sansantei Arindo 山々亭有人.[i]

Although it is clear, even from the misspelled title, that neither of these artists had a particularly firm grasp of English, their combined efforts provide a great deal of valuable information for scholars about prevailing cultural ideas in Japan at the time. The fact that they jumped together on the bandwagon of demand for language manuals of this sort also illustrates the nail-biting pressure faced by artists at this juncture to reinvent themselves in the face of rapidly changing media formats, as well as audience expectation, amidst the Meiji government’s rush to Westernization at all levels of society. Over the brief span of less than a decade, these two artists went from having well-established careers in the Edo-period popular arts of ukiyoe and gesaku fiction to publishing illustrated language manuals and later to co-founding the longest running newspaper in Japan, which they called the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shinbun, precursor to today’s Mainichi Shinbun (Daily newspaper). To varying degrees, both men were able to bridge these drastically different historical periods rather nimbly, compared to many of their contemporaries, but their achievements have been largely unacknowledged until recently.[ii]

Jōno is actually presented as the “extractor,” or selector (shōsatsu 抄撮) of the English vocabulary, rather than the author, but he uses his verbal prowess in the introductions to these volumes to poke fun at both his own profession, as a gesaku writer, and less directly at the Meiji government’s push for Western-style enlightenment. In Volume I, he writes:

A certain Master Mei (明) was on the road when he saw a man carrying his parent on his back, and he gave him a reward. When he heard his attendants nearby commenting that the man was not a true Confucian and his actions did not deserve a prize, the Master said, “Even if he is just copying filial piety, isn’t it better to give him a prize, when copying bad behavior is so much on the rise?” If one were to make a clever comparison, those who try their hand at writing in the style of gesaku advocate making literary adaptations of old classics. They are always wrestling with one another over their talent for extracting excerpts. In this work, we are treating the study of translation as a form of transient child’s play. If the child remembers words, even as baby talk, it will still in some small way give a little boost to the international communication of the present day and nudge enlightenment (kaika 開化) forward a tiny bit. If that happens, isn’t that better than copying uncouth (Chinese) histories that act as vulgar intermediaries? (leaf 1; my translation)

Interestingly, Master Mei, whose name seems a barely concealed reference to Meiji (明治), rewards Confucian filial piety—a Chinese philosophy—at the same time that Chinese histories, which had formerly been the foundation for much of Japan’s popular literature, are now dismissed as “uncouth” and “vulgar.” Jōno also seems to suggest that since the Meiji government’s push for Western-style enlightenment is nothing more than copying anyway, the choice comes down to whether one copies good or bad behaviors.

All the various dictionaries from the Meiji period in the Cotsen collection (for a list, see the annotated bibliography that follows) can be placed on a continuum from a more Western frame-of-reference on one end to a Japanese (or Eastern) frame-of-reference on the other. Volume I of Illustrated English for Children firmly places the reader on the Japanese end of the spectrum, beginning, not with the alphabet, as one might expect, but rather with a Romanized transcription of the poem Iroha いろは (Fig. 3), used since the Heian period to teach the Japanese syllabary. This is followed by the four seasons, the months of the year, and the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Figure 3. Detail from Illustrated English for Children, Volume I, leaf 2. (Cotsen N-000864)

It is here that we can see that the Edo-period practice of “extracting excerpts” (i.e., copying) was not limited to writing. The Cotsen collection also has a colorful ukiyoe print of illustrated English words by Utagawa Yoshitora 歌川芳虎 (active 1850-1870), the oldest student among Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s many disciples and Yoshiiku’s senior. Although the three unbound sheets of prints are undated, making it difficult to tell definitively which came first, it seems likely that Yoshiiku copied Yoshitora, who also begins by offering a Romanization in all-caps of the iroha poem used to teach the Japanese syllabary and the twelve zodiac animals. Several of Yoshiiku’s zodiac animals are almost identical to Yoshitora’s, although Yoshitora’s “English” (actually a mix of German and English) is decidedly more problematic, especially in this instance: bull 牛= A tiger?! (Fig. 4)

Figure 4. Detail from English Words with Illustrations by Yoshitora. (Cotsen 102875)

This error reveals the pitfalls of extraction because Yoshitora most likely had copied from someone else before him. By looking at Yoshiiku’s more comprehensive treatment of the zodiac (Fig. 5)–even though it likely came later–we can see how easy it would be to make such a mistake, simply by confusing the labels: “A Cow” comes directly before “A Tiger.”

Figure 5. Illustrated English for Children, Volume I, leaf 3. (Cotsen N-000864)

More than half of the 115 or so items squeezed onto Yoshitora’s prints are extracted, almost directly, or otherwise emulated by Yoshiiku and Jōno in Volume I of their Illustrated English for Children, but they are careful to update and correct as needed. For instance, the older Yoshitora draws the “lion” as an auspicious, fanciful creature called a shishi 獅子, which was commonly found in Edo-period depictions (Fig. 6, left), whereas Yoshiiku’s lion (also labeled shishi) looks much more realistic (Fig. 6, right).

Figure 6.
Left: “lion” in Yoshitora’s print;
Right: “lion” in Illustrated English for Children, Volume I, leaf 5. (Cotsen N-000864)

Although Yoshiiku updates and corrects Yoshitora’s version, he also offers a wealth of loose interpretations of his own, as in his depiction of a “piano,” which is translated as koto 琴 (Fig.7, left) and “crown,” which takes the shape of the lacquer headdress (kanmuri冠) worn by the emperor (Fig. 7, right). These are not really “mistakes” as much as reinterpretations of a concept to suit the frame of reference of the reader—for a Japanese audience of this period, the koto was the nearest equivalent to a piano and a kanmuri was their version of a royal crown.

Figure 7. Details from Illustrated English for Children, Volume I. (Cotsen N-000864)
Left: “piano” (leaf 6);
Right: “crown” (leaf 13).

These reinterpretations to suit a different cultural framework become even more interesting as Yoshiiku and Jōno move beyond objects and animals in their Illustrated English for Children to depicting adjectives, verbs, and complex concepts. It is here that Yoshiiku’s deftness at developing a visual shorthand comes to the fore. For instance, how would a Japanese audience of the period immediately recognize the concepts of “mad(ness)” or “murder” in what amounts to a thumb-nail sketch?

Figure 8. Details from Illustrated English for Children, Volume I. (Cotsen N-000864)
Left: “mad” (leaf 10);
Right: “murder” (leaf 14).

“Mad” is a disheveled woman with her fan hanging from a stick, and “murder” (misspelled as “onser”?) is a man, bleeding profusely from the chest as he runs away screaming.

Volume II of the Illustrated English for Children takes both visual and verbal language to a new level by presenting whole scenes with a series of related words. This is a departure from anything to be found in the other English illustrated dictionaries available in the collection, which tend to keep words as individuated concepts, sometimes arranged thematically, but usually sectioned off in separate boxes. Jōno alerts the reader to this progression in his introduction to Volume II, where he compares the English alphabet, which is finally introduced here, to the entangled vines of the morning glory:

If a novice takes the seeds of the morning glory, which a gardener has grown, and plants them in the soil, the shape of the flower may look similar but the petals will be small and the luster dull; but if they see one grown by an experienced gardener, they will most certainly feel ridiculous. If it is made easy for children to see Western writing, which looks like the vines of that same morning glory, it will—like the bamboo poles that are used to prop up the vines—give a little boost to the entanglement (of the vines). From where do the linkages (entanglement) of knowledge begin, if not with the 26 letters of the alphabet, which are the foundations of the great learning (fertilizer/manure) in which this humble work abounds. It may be that if this is viewed by a seasoned scholar, parts (of the work) would make him laugh uncontrollably, but I would be honored if it could be seen as what is called a fleeting “evanescent glory” of child’s play thing. (leaf 1; my translation)

Abandoning the dividing lines used in Volume I, Yoshiiku designs whole pages of interlinked visual vocabulary, most obviously here in the depiction of an intergenerational family:

Figure 9. Illustrated English for Children, Volume II, leaves 5-6. (Cotsen N-001262)

At the top, nearest to the cabinet of drawers in the upper left-hand corner sit the grandparents with the words for gold 金 and silver 銀 followed down the side of the right-hand page by father, mother, two brothers, and one grandchild. Significantly, the grandchild is at the bottom of the page nearest the roof (lower left-hand corner) of the “treasury” (金庫). The implication being perhaps that grandchildren are an investment for the future, or possibly that big, intergenerational families require money! The grandchild is playing with toys that reappear near the end of the volume, indicating that the associative linkages Jōno describes in the Introduction are not just across double-page spreads, but even across the volume as a whole.

Figure 9. Illustrated English for Children, Volume II, leaf 5: detail of “grandchild” (Cotsen N-001262)

Near the child’s feet, we can see a denden daiko, or a hand-held drum that makes a sound when spun because the beads attached to threads on either side hit the central drum. What the child is kicking with his other foot is harder to decipher here, but it becomes clear on the next-to last page (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Illustrated English for Children, Volume II, leaves 16-17. (Cotsen N-001262)

The double-page spread above has a different set of drawers at the top, this time a medicine cupboard. The words “pill,” “lotion,” “ague,” and “heal” are close by. Below right, we see a man feeling for the woman’s heart-beat with the words “lean” (as in thin–痩せる) and “touch.” On the left-hand side, we see the denden daiko again, only this time held by a woman, who is making noise with it next to a child. This is accompanied by the word “Measles.” Directly below the woman, to the right of the child, is the object that the grandchild was kicking over in the earlier illustration (Fig. 9). Here, we can see that it is a daruma doll, but it is labeled “smallpox.” Meanwhile, the grandchild is in a pose of distress labeled “crazy,” while the man above him is labeled “scream.” This juxtaposition of ideas would probably have been (and still is) meaningless to a non-Japanese reader, but the readers of Illustrated English for Children would have known that red toys, especially daruma, were typically placed next the pillow of a child with smallpox to distract the demons who had brought the disease. Also, daruma are dolls that can right themselves when they are knocked over, so they are associated with recovery. The denden daiko was similarly associated with driving away measles with the noise it makes. Over time, these toys became visual shorthand for the diseases they were thought to drive away.[iii]

Most intriguingly, on the upper right-hand side of the left-hand page is a concept with no visual equivalent: “love.” It may be that this indicates that the various actions surrounding it are illustrative of the concept so it needs no further explanation. But there are many other intriguing associative puzzles to be solved in this slim volume, many that would seem to be beyond a child’s comprehension.

Figure 11. Illustrated English for Children, Volume II. (Cotsen N-001262)
Left: leaf 7;
Right: leaf 12.

On leaf 7 (Fig. 11, left), for example, we see a man and woman near a rumpled futon mattress and surrounded by the concepts: “floor or (second) story,” “stupid,” “say,” “false,” “true,” “jug,” and “ale.” Notably, the concept “true” is near the woman, and the concepts “say” and “false” are near the man. Later, on leaf 12 (Fig. 11, right), we see a similar couple near a gate with the words: “dark,” “secret,” “asleep,” “letter,” “bash” (embarrassed), and “mistake.”

The scene on leaf 12 seems a continuation of what happened on leaf 7 because the woman is attempting to hand a letter to her lover, who is, through his “bashful” gestures, pushing the letter and woman away, while scratching his head, as if he can’t imagine how this “mistake” could have happened. (Is he the “false” man in the earlier illustration?) In Japanese, the word “mistake” is more precisely translated “mistake of the heart” (心まちがい).

These associative groupings raise questions about whether the intended audience for Illustrated English for Children was really (or exclusively) children, as Jōno keeps insisting in his introductions. Although the Japanese title also would have us think that it is designed “for children to understand” 童解, a look at a different book by this same combination of Yoshiiku (artist) and Jōno (author), published around the same time, and held in the East Asian Library collection (PL676.D66 1870) suggests a broader understanding of the concept of “child” (童). Published in 1870, Dōmō hitsudoku Kango zukai 童蒙必讀漢語圖解 is an illustrated language manual designed for what Jōno describes in his introduction as fuyō dōmō 婦幼童蒙 (literally, “women, children, and those in the darkness of ignorance”) in order for them to learn the necessary Chinese to understand literary references in the Chinese histories and romances on which popular literature (i.e., gesaku fiction) was based. This sounds to modern readers like Jōno is openly insulting his audience, but, in fact, it is very similar in concept to a popular series found frequently in bookstores today: “English Language (or Chinese Literary References) for Dummies.” These language manuals were popular precisely because Jōno and Yoshiiku knew their audience from a long career of writing and illustrating Edo-period gesaku fiction, and they offered these readers a humorously self-deprecating and non-threatening way to ease into the new reality of rapid Westernization. This popular audience would have included children, women, and, no doubt, a great many less-educated men. In Tsuchiya Momoko’s study of Jōno, she argues that his work in the Meiji period represented a continuation from the Edo-period more than disruption.[iv] Illustrated English for Children would seem to bolster this claim, as Jōno deftly adapted the new genre of the English-language dictionary to entertain very much the same popular audience he had appealed to before the opening of Japan to the West. Today, these materials provide a gold mine of information for scholars to begin to understand the visual sensibilities and cultural associations of that popular, but often underrepresented, late eighteenth-century audience.


[i] Due to the complexity of Japanese artists’ names at this time, I will refer to the illustrator as Yoshiiku and the author as Jōno throughout. Otherwise, I follow Japanese name order with surname appearing first.

[ii] In 2009, for example, Tsuchiya Momoko published her dissertation titled Edo to Meiji o ikita gesakusha Sansantei Arindo/Jōno Saigiku Sanjin (The popular fiction writer Sansantei Arindo/Jōno Saigiku Sanjin, who lived from Edo to Meiji), (Tokyo: Kindai Bungeisha), reassessing Jōno’s contributions to the field of literature. In 2018, the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo had a comprehensive show of Ochiai Yoshiiku’s works, stating that in spite of his importance to the history of ukiyoe, he has been largely overlooked in favor of other well-known ukiyoe artists, namely Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kobayashi Kiyochika and Kawanabe Kyōsai.

[iii] See discussions on these healing practices involving toys in McGowan, Tara M. “The Designs of Kawasaki Kyosen Envisioning the Future of a Vanishing World Through Toy Pictures (omocha e).” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Spring, 2013): 320-365.

[iv] Tsuchiya, Edo to Meiji, 2009.

Other pictorial dictionaries of interest in the collection, sorted by date:

Taisei kunmo zukai泰西訓蒙図解官版 (German-English-French-Japanese dictionary). Tokyo: Monbusho, 1871. Fore-edge on left. (Cotsen 98881)
Published by the government, this two-volume set is divided into categories, such as various houses, table utensils, rural occupations, domestic and wild animals. The title literally means “Illustrated Western enlightenment.”

Eifutsu tango zukai英佛單語圖解 (English-French illustrated word dictionary), translated by Chikayama Shōichi and illustrated by Nakamura Munehiro. Tōkyō: Yūjitsudō, 1872. Fore-edge on right. (Cotsen N-000168)
Each vocabulary word is illustrated in a box on the right with the Japanese translation in Chinese characters and katakana alongside. The corresponding English and French translations are provided in Romanization with katakana pronunciation listed in a box on the left.

Eikoku tango zukai英國單語圖解 (Illustrated dictionary of English terms), by Ichikawa Ōha, 1872. Fore-edge on right. (Cotsen N-000129)
Terms are presented in English, katakana pronunciation of the English term, a Japanese translation, and then the pronunciation of the Japanese term. Text is in black ink, images in a rusty brown. This is the first of two volumes. Divided into four sections, with a particularly interesting treatment of illness and the human body.

Seiyo ebiki setsuyoshu西洋画引き節用集 (Japanese-English vocabulary). Osaka: [Onogi, Ichibei], 1872. Fore-edge on right. (Cotsen 82795)
This picture dictionary is organized by the Iroha syllabary, starting with words in Japanese beginning with i (以) and then moving on to ro (呂), ha (波), and so on. This makes it easy for a Japanese reader to search familiar words.

Kaichū eigo hitorigeiko: Eiwa taiyaku懐中英語独稽古: 英和對譯 (Flashlight English-German self-study: with English and Japanese translation), originally by Gustave Chouquet and translated by Saita Ryōji. Ōsaka: Akashi Chūshichi, 1885. Fore-edge on right. (Cotsen N-000131)
This is actually a compilation from various sources. The first section provides alphabets in different scripts and an illustrated dictionary of terms under various subjects, such as “elements” and “cloths and dress,” which are not included in Chouquet’s original. Chouquet’s Easy Conversations was in French and English parallel translation. The second section of this volume is an excerpt from Chouquet’s volume, only in English and Japanese parallel translation.

Eigo zukai英語圗解 (Illustrated English vocabulary charts), illustrated and published by Fukuda Kumajiro. Tōkyō: Kōto Shuppansha, 1887. (Cotsen 102865, available online)
English words are grouped semantically, illustrated, and explained in Japanese; pronunciation guides in katakana are provided on top of each word. Each sheet is numbered and dated.