From Science and Experience: Essential Medicines for Health, Taishō era (1912-1926)

click on image to enlarge

IHL Cat. #1286

Patent Medicine Advertisement - From Science and Experience: Essential Medicines for Health

學理と經驗とにより  配劑せられたる衛生の要藥 

unknown artist

image: 6 1/4 x 8 3/4 in.

sheet: 7 3/4 x 10 5/8 in.


Note: All transcriptions and translations are my own and subject to error.

A Taishō era (1912-1936) woodblock printed advertisement (hikifuda) for "medicines for health, based on science and experience." Displayed in the top center of the print is a trademark seemingly made up of the characters 井本 ("Imoto" or "Inomoto"), possibly the trademark of the manufacturer of the five medicines being advertised or a trademark associated with the named pharmacy 磯矢榮壽軒薬房 (possibly reading "Isoya Eijuken pharmacy") located in 伊賀玉瀧 (Tamataki Iga-shi), as printed in the top left corner within the image. The five medicines listed beneath the trademark are, ヘブリン丸 Heburingan (a cold medicine in pill form),  ヒスミシト丸 (くだりとめ) (possibly an anti-diarrheal in pill form), 五龍圎 (かんぐすり) (possibly a nerve medicine),  胃痛散 (ぬびやりのく?) (a stomach care powder, also known in Chinese as wèi tòng powder) and 腹痛丸 (?らぐすり) (a stomach ache pill). Two similar prints carrying the name of the same pharmacy and bearing the same trademark are also extant, as shown below.

In each of the prints, a group of rugged boys are engaged in a strenuous physical activity, which is supplemented with dialogue between the boys. In each print, the boys who are winning wear the above mentioned trademark of the drug manufacturer on their shirts. In this collection's print the boy wearing the trademark shirt stands his ground against the "frontal attack" of his opponents, while calling the two boys on the left "scaredy-cats." His opponents are in awe telling our boy hero, "your legs are like stone." An interesting choice of illustration to advertise the efficacy of the medicines being sold, cold and stomach medications, but consistent with the statement appearing in the left margin, "The effectiveness of a product depends on the individual's attention to personal health and quality of life."

Building brand and trust for patent medicines was important in an industry that competed not only with other patent medicine companies but with drug companies providing western and scientifically developed products.[1] This collection's print contains the following assurances from the chief pharmacist 擔當薬製師:

Each product is made from the finest raw materials.

Each product is made to the highest standards of quality.

Our products are the most effective and ready-to-use medicine available.

The best medicines for health and to lose weight.

I hope it will be the best medicine for you.






Patent Medicines in Japan  - A Very Brief History

Patent medicine (baiyaku 売薬) advertisements were both the oldest and most numerous of the hikifuda, being produced as far back as the mid-1600s through the Taishō and into the Shōwa eras.[2] While patent medicines were labeled as unscientific (i.e. non-Western), by the intellectual elite, as Japan entered the Meiji era and the drive for Westernization and modernity unfolded, they remained immensely popular and their regulation went from one of having to show "proven efficacy" early in the Meiji period to "doing no harm" a few years later when their sheer numbers made testing and regulation impossible.  While decrying patent medicines the Meiji government did not miss out on the opportunity to heavily tax them and "from 1876 to 1916, total government tax revenues rose from 28,455 yen to 2,965,624 yen."[3]  

In the early 1870s a public debate ensued about the patent medicine business, led by the journalist and owner of the newspaper Jiji shinpō, Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), who labelled patent medicines as "unscientific placebos that duped the public at best and poisoned it at worst."[4] However, the popularity of patent medicines would not fade, especially among rural populations without access to Japan's developing modern medical system centered in the cities, and patent medicine companies would combat the unscientific label placed on their products by advertising them as both "modern" and adhering "to the principles of Western medical science."[5] Advertising was the key to the continued growth of the sale of patent medicines which reached its peak in around 1935.[6]

The packaging for the patent medicine 五龍圓 with calming properties 鎮静 for adults and children 大人小児.

 Note the 井本 ("Imoto" or "Inomoto") trademark.

"In order to make their medicines stand out from those of the competition, patent medicine manufacturers everywhere sold their products in uniquely shaped packages with colorful, eye-catching labels."[5]

[1] "In 1904 there were 3,102 licensed patent medicine manufacturers in Japan, who made altogether 9,735 different kinds of medicines for which licences were taken out." [source: "Patent Medicines In Japan" appearing  in The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2455 (Jan. 18, 1908), pp. 161-163, Stable URL:]

[2] Japanese Popular Prints from Votive Slips to Playing Cards, Rebecca Salter, University of Hawai'i Press, 2006, p. 73; "Marketing Health and the Modern Body: Patent Medicine Advertisements in Meiji-Taishō Japan," Susan Burns, appearing in Looking Modern: East Asian Visual Culture from Treaty Ports to World War II, edited by Jennifer Purtle and Hans Bjarne Thomsen,  Center for the Art of East Asia, Department of Art History, University of Chicago, 2009, p. 184.

[3] "Market, Medicine, and Empire: Hoshi Pharmaceuticals in the Interwar Years," Timothy M. Yang, submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University, 2013, p.  COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY 2013, p. 76.

[4] Ibid, p. 73.

[5] Ibid. p. 77.

Print Details

From Science and Experience #1286