A thin white cardboard tube with tiny black lettering lying on a red background. The lettering indicates that this is an ampoule of smallpox vaccine

Ōta Chōu’s Vaccination: Medicine and Modern Girls in 1930s Japanese Painting

In the midst of the 2021 COVID-19 mass vaccination campaign, the “vaccine selfie” – often a self-portrait cell-phone snapshot taken in the car or at the pharmacy with a small adhesive bandage on the arm and a vaccination card in the hand – has become a popular social media trend in the United States. Yet, this simple photograph can illustrate more than just COVID immunity, hinting at political beliefs, social and class status, and geographic locale.

Similarly, Vaccination (Shutō, 種痘, Figure 1), painted by Ōta Chōu (1896–1958) in 1934 provides insight into modern Japan’s smallpox eradication campaigns and policies as represented by one artist. The inclusion of vaccination as a subject in fine art shows us the success of modern health and hygiene campaigns, and that the insertion of the state into issues of the body and physical well-being was widely accepted in 1930s Japan. It also hints at imperial Japan’s expansionist policies and exposes the changing gender dynamics of the time.

Painting of a Japanese woman in white robes administering a shot to another Japanese woman in a striped dress.
Figure 1. Vaccination (Shutō, 種痘), Ōta Chōu, 1934, color on paper. (Image courtesy of Kyoto City Museum of Art.)

Exhibited at the twenty-first Inten, an exhibition of Japanese paintings, Vaccination shows a woman, dressed in a black and white kimono with a yagasuri (arrow feather) pattern overlaid with floral designs, sitting in a modern curved chair. She pulls back her sleeve, gazing at her exposed arm, while a second woman, a medical practitioner dressed almost completely in white, steadies a bifurcated needle, preparing to cut the flesh for smallpox vaccination.[1] The pine green color of the patient’s kimono bow is mirrored in the table top and in the warm earth tones of the wood and brown glass. The red on her sash is reminiscent of blood or the rash of smallpox, and the floral pattern that overlays the yagasuri visually evokes the pox scars that she will avoid. Every line brings the eye to the incision point, the unemotional gaze of both women fixed on the action.

This painting is classified as nihonga, or neo-traditional Japanese painting. Developed in the late nineteenth century, nihonga utilized historic techniques and materials and often featured conventional subject matter such as birds and flowers or landscapes, but by the 1930s modern life made appearances in the genre. The artist Ōta Chōu, a professor at the Tokyo Fine Arts School, regularly showed his paintings at the Inten from the 1930s until his death in 1958.[2] His other paintings include modern girls, and occasionally reference modern technology, such as his well-known 1936 painting, Women Observing Stars, wherein a group of young women gaze into a large telescope.

The Inten, or Nihon bijutsuin tenrankai, is a biannual exhibition held by the Nihon bijutsuin (Institute of Japanese Art), an organization dedicated to the promotion of nihonga that still exists today. The exhibition is juried, and through its inclusion in the show, we can understand that Vaccination included subject matter that was socially accepted and of interest to a general audience.

Drawing of a person's forearm and hand, being held in place at the forearm by another set of hands, while yet another set of hands grasps the arm's wrist and sticks a sharp fountain-pen like instrument into the forearm.
Figure 2. Naika hiroku (Records of Internal Medicine), Honma Sōken (1804-1872), 19th century, woodblock printed book. (Public domain.)

Smallpox was extant in Japan from the sixth century, with inoculation starting in the early nineteenth century and widespread immunization efforts starting in 1849.[3] The term shutō, the title of the painting, is specific to smallpox vaccinations, which use the bifurcated needle technique represented in both the painting and in the nineteenth-century manual, Naika hiroku (Record of Internal Medicine, Figure 2), which documented the disease and how to inoculate against it.

The horrific and deadly reality of smallpox was very present in nineteenth-century Japan, and the Meiji government (1868–1912) was invested in eradicating the disease. Starting in 1876, the government decided that all people should be immunized. By 1885, health regulations stipulated that citizens had to record their vaccination status in the koseki, an official household register kept at a local government office, and vaccination became required by law in 1910.[4] Major outbreaks continued in Japan until 1905 and the mortality rate remained around thirty percent for those infected.[5]

But smallpox was nearly eradicated in Japan by the time of this painting in 1934. Beginning in 1918, vaccination was required for all one-year-old babies and for children entering school, leading to low numbers of infection: just over 5,000 total cases were recorded between 1927 and 1944.[6] Yet major outbreaks occurred in China between 1930 and 1934, and again in 1936.[7] Knowing this epidemiological history allows us to understand that this painting is likely not about domestic instances of disease, but rather refers to regional health issues, and by extension, Japan’s imperial expansion in East Asia. Ōta Chōu’s imagined patient may be a Japanese woman preparing for international travel, or a woman from a colonized territory dressed in kimono.[8]

The two women in the painting can be classified as “modern girls,” or modan gāru. Notoriously difficult to define, representations of modern girls in 1920s and 1930s Japan were filled with contradictions. The term “modern girl” became popular after appearing in Junichirō Tanazaki’s 1924 novel Naomi, and referred to young women, generally urban, who perhaps worked outside of the home or lived away from their parents, and enjoyed the many pleasures the city had to offer, such as café culture. Modern girls were not representative of all Japanese women, but they exemplified the new consumer culture, presented challenges to social norms, and exposed shifts in women’s public identities.[9] Stereotypes in literature and mass media were plentiful: such women were criticized as too liberal for the social good, but simultaneously were a popular public face for modernity; they were too unpolitical for leftists, but not demure enough for conservative voices. Yet there was flexibility in how the modern girl was interpreted by differing interests, and by the mid-1930s the modern girl became less controversial, occasionally co-opted for corporate or state interests.

In nihonga, modern girls are relatively unusual. When they appear, they are shown in comparatively new settings such as museums and aquariums, participating in sports, or amidst technology such as telescopes or cars. In Vaccination, the women are portrayed in a clinical setting. The severe white background, the women’s stark clothing, and their smooth, neat, pulled-back hair all add to the harsh appearance of the painting. Art historian Asato Ikeda argues for this style of representing modern girls as a “machine-ist” aesthetic, one which was conceived of in a time of increasing militarism as Japan’s empire expanded, but which coexisted with consumer society.[10] Certainly, the dispassionate feel of the painting, combined with the women’s flat facial expressions and the medical subject matter, can be interpreted as machine-ist, and a powerful marker of the involvement of the state in the daily lives and physical bodies of the citizenry. It is also worth mentioning that the medical practitioner is a woman, a position that in 1934 was only recently opened to women.

As of May 2021, Japan’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign was slowly getting off the ground, with just 2.2% of the population vaccinated on May 7. A history of vaccine controversies in the late twentieth century have left many Japanese people wary and have led the government to proceed slowly with new medical approvals and rollouts. While living through a pandemic may feel never-ending, smallpox, the disease imagined in this painting, was eradicated in Japan in the 1950s, as it was in most of the world. Today, smallpox is a distant memory, and we can imagine that one day COVID-19 will be too.

I would like to thank Elisheva Perelman and Sakura Christmas for their insights. Any mistakes are my own.


    1. The Kyoto City Museum, where the painting is housed, refers to the instrument as a scalpel. The tip of the instrument is extremely small, and representing the detail of a bifurcated needle may not have been possible, or desirable, in this instance. “Shutō,” Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, https://kyotocity-kyocera.museum/100_selections/024, accessed April 12, 2021.
    2. Today the school is called the Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku, or Geidai), but prior to 1949 it was called the Tokyo Fine Arts School (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkō). For a brief biography in Japanese, and a list of Inten exhibitions he exhibited in, see: “Ōta Chōu,” Nihon bijutsu nenkan (Yearbook of Japanese Art), 1959, 146–7, https://www.tobunken.go.jp/materials/bukko/8863.html, accessed April 8, 2021.
    3. Centers for Disease Control, “History of Small Pox,” https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html, accessed April 8, 2021. Akihito Suzuki, “Smallpox and the Epidemiological Heritage of Modern Japan: Towards a Total History,” Medical History 55, no. 3 (July 2011): 313–8.
    4. Tetsuyo Nakayama, “Vaccine Chronicle in Japan,” Journal of Infection and Chemotherapy, Vol. 19, No. 5 (2013): 787-798, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3824286/, accessed April 8, 2021. Ann Jannetta, The Vaccinators: Smallpox, Medical Knowledge, and the “Opening” of Japan (Stanford University Press, 2007), 178.
    5. Jannetta, 179.
    6. F. Fenner, D.A. Henderson, I. Arita, Z. Jezek, and I.D. Ladnyi, Smallpox and its Eradication (World Health Organization, 1988), 343.
    7. Fenner, et. al., 339.
    8. Examples of fluid fashions in fine art at this time include Miyamoto Saburo’s 1935 painting “Women in Three Fashion Modes,” showing three women dressed in kimono, cheongsam, and skirt and blouse, respectively, or Yasui Sotaro’s 1934 “Portrait of Chin-jung” showing a Japanese woman wearing cheongsam and using a Chinese name.
    9. Miriam Silverberg, “The Modern Girl as Militant,” in Gail Lee Bernstein, ed., Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945 (University of California Press, 1991), 261–4.
    10. Asato Ikeda, “Modern Girls and Militarism: Japanese-Style Machine-ist Paintings, 1935–1940,” in Asato Ikeda, Aya Louisa McDonald, and Ming Tiampo, eds., Art and War in Japan and Its Empire, 1931–1960 (Brill, 2013), 91–100.

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