Treasures of the Library: Album of animals by Seisai Yoshimura

Following a request from an animal lover to feature a book on animals, this issue introduces the book entitled “Jūrui Gafu” (Album of Animals), which is the only book dedicated to animals among the special collections in the Lisa Sainsbury Library. This book was published in the early Meiji era, the exact year is unknown, by a publisher called Ōhashidō in Tokyo. All 20 pages of the book are polychrome woodblock-print illustrations. Each page is divided into two or three panes, and one species of animal appears in each pane with its name. In total there are 51 species depicted. The front cover of the book portrays an image of a hunting scene of the Edo period in the ukiyo-e style. The cover also shows the title of the book, the name of the publisher and the name of the artist as ‘Saisei Yoshimura’ which indicates that the artist is Utagawa Yoshimura (1846 1 -1887?)2.

Album of Animals (Jūrui gafu)
Lisa Sainsbury Library

Utagawa Yoshimura was an ukiyo-e artist who was active between the late Edo period and the early Meiji era3. He was a pupil of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and named ‘芳村’ (Yoshimura) at first.One of the kanji characters of his name was changed to ‘芳邨’ (it is also pronounced as Yoshimura) from Meiji 9 (1876)4. He used the pseudonym Seisai. On some occasions he used the surname Itō instead of Utagawa5, so his name sometimes appears as Itō Seisai. A database of Tōbunken (Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties) indicates that Itō Seisai lived in Hasegawacho in 18766 and 18807 and moved to Misujicho in 18818.

Although this book does not state the year of the publication, it must be after 1876 when he changed the kanji character of his name and before his death in 1887. During this period Japan’s first zoo, Ueno Zoological Gardens, was opened. The Ueno Zoo originates from the Vienna World’s Fair, the first expo that Japan officially participated in, held in 1873. In order to exhibit at the Fair, the Japanese Government collected products and animals from all over Japan and dispatched them to Vienna. After the World’s Fair, the Japanese Government arranged for the products and animals, which had been shown in Vienna, to be permanently exhibited in Tokyo. For this reason, a purpose-built museum (now called Tokyo National Museum) was constructed in Ueno to exhibit these artefacts. As a part of the museum, a zoo was also opened in 1882. The zoo was very successful, in fact there were over 220,000 visitors to the zoo in the first year9 even though most of the animals in the zoo were native to Japan because they were originally collected for the World’s Fair. There is a possibility that this book was published in 1882 when the zoo was opened, because of the tremendous popularity of the zoo.

However, people who saw this book first and then went to the zoo must have been disappointed because there are many exotic wild animals such as lions, elephants, giraffes and kangaroos in the book, which were not in fact to be found in the zoo. The first foreign animal to be exhibited in the Ueno Zoo was a tiger, which was obtained from Chiarini’s Royal Italian Circus and Performing Animals 10 in 1887.

From today’s standpoint this book may be considered very unsophisticated. However, taking into account the fact that it was published only a few years after Japan’s modernisation, a different view could be taken. Firstly, the animal species in this book are all existing animals. It may sound strange for people today, but in the late 19th century in Japan there was no opportunity for people to actually see exotic animals from around the world. Therefore, it could be difficult to identify whether it was a real animal or a mythological creation. In addition, in traditional Far East paintings, dragons, phoenixes, qilins kylin and Chinese lion dogs were often depicted, but there are no such imaginary creatures in this book.

For the animals which are not native to Japan, Yoshimura must have been influenced by foreign illustrations for his painting depicting non-Japanese animals. The first work that comes to mind in this context is Johannes Jonston’s “Historiae Naturalis de Quadrupedibus Libri, cum Aeneis Figuris”. This book came to Japan from the Netherlands during the Edo period, and was used by painters and intellectuals as a reference for animals of foreign origin. However, it is believed that Yoshimura did not consult this book: Firstly because the postures of the lion and the elephant in Yoshimura’s book bear little resemblance to those to animals in Jonston’s book. Secondly because Jonston’s book, unlike Yoshimura’s, shows mythical creatures such as unicorns and griffins in addition to real animals. To date, it is not known precisely which foreign books, if any, Yoshimura had access to.

It should be noted that the artistic ability is not of a very high standard in this book. Despite being a disciple of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a genius ukiyo-e artist who was known for his love of cats, Yoshimura’s cat is not so realistic. It seems that the cat in this book was taken from the ukiyo-e by Kuniyoshi (upper left in the middle), as can be seen clearly by comparing them.
In his defence, examining the image on the cover of this book, his other ukiyo-e works and his illustrations in other books show he was in fact an artist of some ability.

As well as this “Album of Animals”, the artist Seisai Yoshimura also published with the same publisher a book entitled “Album of Fishes”, which the Lisa Sainsbury Library does not hold . This book depicts various types of fish without any text, i.e. the same format of “Album of Animals”.
Furthermore, the NDL (National Diet Library) holds a two-volume book called “Seisai Gafu12 published by Seikadō. The second volume of this book, entitled ‘Animals and Fishes ’, is a combination of “Album of Animals” and “Album of Fishes”. Unlike the Lisa Sainsbury Library’s copy, the images of the book in the NDL collection are entirely monochrome13. The date of publication of the NDL’s book is February of Meiji 20 (1887), which is considered to be the year of Yoshimura’s death. The first volume of this book has a foreword, but it mentions nothing about the death of Yoshimura. There is some confusion about the exact year of his death; in all instances Yoshimura was 41 years old in 1887.

This animal album, donated by Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi, can be viewed via our website, along with the newly released digital archives called ‘Japan Search’ which was officially launched on 25 August, 2020 under the initiative of the Cabinet Office of Japan and the National Diet Library.

Akira Hirano, Librarian

I would like to express my gratitude to Ms Yukiko Yoshii at Mita Media Center, Keio University, Mr Toshinori Egami at International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Chimura-san at the University Library, Kyoto Institute of Technology and Ms Sumiko Nakamura, who provided vital information for my research despite the second wave of the pandemic in Japan.


1. Inoue, Kazuo. 1931. Ukiyoeshi den in National Diet Library Digital Collection

2. The death year of Utagawa Yoshimura is specified only in the Authority Database of the National Diet Library. The source of the NDL authority record is the book entitled “Nihonga Jinmei Jiten”, and the book clearly says, ‘He died in Meiji 20 (1887).’ However, all other sources say that his death year is unknown.

3. Shimizu, Tōru. 1978. Ukiyoe Jinmei Jiten.

4. Asano, Shūgō. 1982. Ukiyoeshi. (Genshoku Ukiyoe Daihyakka Jiten ; 2)

5. Inoue, Kazuo. 1931. Ukiyoeshi den in National Diet Library Digital Collection

6. Eirakudō. 1876. Gaka ichiran. in Meiji Taishō-ki shogaka banzuke database

7. Miyata, Uhē. 1880. Tōkyō shotaika raimeikyō. in Meiji Taishō-ki shogaka banzuke database

8. Takemura, Teijirō. 1881. Kokoku meiyo jinmei furoku. in Meiji Taishō-ki shogaka banzuke database

9. Wakō, Kenji. “The History of Zoological Parks in Modern Japan”. in Zōen Zasshi. 46(1): 1-12, 1982

10. They had an Imperial command performance at the Fukiage Ōmiya Palace in Tokyo in 1886.

11. According to my research, no academic libraries hold copies of this book. On the contrary, “Album of Animals” is held by the British Library, Harvard Yenching Library and Deutsches Museum Bibliothek in addition to the Lisa Sainsbury Library.

12. The University Library at Kyoto Institute of Technology holds a copy of the same author’s same titled book which was published by Masukawa Magobē in 1879. The contents of this book, however, is completely different from the NDL’s book.

13. An enquiry to the NDL confirmed that all the images are monochrome.

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