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  • The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan by Maki Fukuoka
  • Karen M. Fraser
The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan. By Maki Fukuoka. Stanford University Press, 2012. 304pages. Hardcover $45.00.

The Japanese term shashin, which in its broadest sense means “copying” or “tracing truth/reality,” has long been the standard rendition for the English “photograph, or photography.” In the conventional narrative of its early history in Japan, photography has been presented as a new Western technology that was introduced amid the opening of the country in the 1850s. Framed within a broader, dichotomous model of the West (modern, technologically advanced) versus Japan (feudal, archaic), photography was thought to offer the possibility of accurate, scientific depictions previously lacking in Japanese visual culture. This potential seems directly embedded in the word shashin itself, which notably embodies a strikingly different conceptualization from that of the English word “photograph” (meaning “light drawing”). Shashin has largely been perceived as a new visual method adopted in tandem with Japan’s modernization, with little attention given to the origins of its nomenclature or its broader contemporary associations. Maki Fukuoka upends this narrative in The Premise of Fidelity by investigating the genealogy of shashin. This compelling study explores various meanings and uses of shashin that predated and overlapped with the introduction of photography and uncovers the rich conceptual history that ultimately led to the term’s modern association with the camera.

The activities of the Shōhyaku-sha, a group of scholars based in the Owari domain (present-day Aichi prefecture) and active from the 1820s through the 1870s, are the main focus of the book. Of great interest to the group was honzōgaku, the study of materia medica. The driving concern for the Shōhyaku-sha’s practicing physicians was to accurately identify plants and understand their medicinal properties in order to use them to treat patients. Developing a comprehensive knowledge of plants was no simple task, however, as it required members to synthesize three types of sources: imported Chinese materia medica; native plant specimens that often differed significantly from their Chinese counterparts; and Western botany in the form of Linnaean taxonomy (a biological classification set up by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus), which they learned about from the physician Phillip Franz von Siebold (1796–1866) in 1826. In the continual process of negotiating among these three entities to generate new knowledge and reconcile it with previously accepted information, the group engaged in a range of practices. These included the staging of public exhibitions and the use of several types of visual representation, among them an innovative pictorial technique that involved impressing plant specimens directly onto a page, thus creating a literal residue of shin (“the real”). The amorphous concept of shin lay at the core of their ultimate goal: to achieve fidelity between actual plants, the naming of those [End Page 293] plants and identification of their properties, and their visual depictions. Shashin, which Fukuoka translates as “transposition of the real” (p. 2) in this context, was central to their collective practices and “occupied a pivotal position in [their] particular epistemological discourse as a primary arena for negotiating the conceptual relationship among representations, represented objects, and names” (p. 10).

Though Fukuoka is particularly concerned with the centrality of shin and shashin to the Shōhyaku-sha’s methods of generating knowledge, she deftly connects these elements with a broader range of concepts, individuals, and institutions. The links between shashin and other terms historically connected to visual representation are a recurring theme. Such terms include sha’i (transposition of will), shasei (transposition of the living spirit), shajitsu (transposition of the actual), shin’ei (shadow of the real), and shashin kyō (shashin lens, or camera obscura). The activities of the Shōhyaku-sha also intersected with the work of a number of prominent figures who engaged with the concepts of shin and shashin in complementary and contradictory ways. These figures ranged from Kaibara Ekken (1630–1714), a scholar and botanist who published his comprehensive studies on materia medica in 1709, to Shiba Kōkan (1747–1818), an eighteenth-century artist...


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pp. 293-296
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