Engelbert Kaempfer: The History of Japan (1727)

Latin title page of "The History of Japan" (Source: Iron Library, Shelfmark: EM/Rb 4q)Latin title page of "The History of Japan" (Source: Iron Library, Shelfmark: EM/Rb 4q)

The history of Japan: giving an account of the ancient and present state and government of that empire; of its temples, palaces, castles and other buildings; of its metals, minerals, trees, plants, animals, birds and fishes; of the chronology and succession of the emperors, ecclesiastical and secular; of the original descent, religions, customs, and manufactures of the natives, and of their trade and commerce with the Dutch and Chinese [...]. London: Scheuchzer 1727.

Engelbert Kaempfer was born In Germany into a family of a vicar. During his youth he was witnessing witch hunts which left a deep impression about human behavior. Although his family was not rich, they possessed quite a good library. There he came across a book by Adam Olearius and his famous account about the embassy to the shah of Persia. This may have well raised Kaempfer’s interest to travel to the East. After his studies of a number of topics at various universities such as Thorn, Cracow, Warsaw, Danzig and Königsberg, he finally focused on medicine and botany, after which he went to the Swedish court where he continued his studies at Uppsala University.

Travels of Discovery and Observation
In 1683 he departed on a trip via Moscow to the court of the Shah of Persia with a Swedish delegation. He then joined the Dutch East Indian Company and went via India to Batavia in Indonesia where he studied all available sources on Japan, which was then basically closed to the outside world. In 1690 he got his chance to go to Japan where he stayed in Nagasaki until 1692. At that time all foreigners had to stay on a very small island called Deshima, which was connected to the city of Nagasaki with a well garded bridge. Foreigners were not allowed to leave Deshima on the pain of death except for special occasions. During this period he made two trips to Edo (today’s Tokyo) with the Dutch delegation to pay tribute to the Shogun (which was the military leader of Japan) On these trips he wrote extensively and his notes and sketches form the basis for his “History of Japan”.

Due to his training in many topics such as mathematics, astronomy, natural science and medicine, Kaempfer must be seen as the first person with a scientific approach to countries in Asia which are very different from Europe. As a medical doctor he could help in many instances where the local medicine would not be sufficient and as a natural scientist gifted with an excellent observational capacity he did record everything with minute details. Even though the Shogunate (government) at the time was bent on not allowing any information on Japan to reach foreigners (it was strictly forbidden to make sketches on any military and other important buildings), Kaempfer made drawings to which he added the descriptions in Arabic and got away with it. The detailed information Kaempfer brought back from his trip to Japan was sensational in its wealth and accuracy. Based on his experience since childhood he was able to judge things for what they were and his original notes were not influenced by religious thinking prevalent at the time.

English title page of Volume I (Source: Iron Library, Shelfmark: EM/Rb 4q)English title page of Volume I (Source: Iron Library, Shelfmark: EM/Rb 4q)

The Destiny of Kaempfer’s Notes
After his return first to Holland in 1693 where he prepared for his thesis, he received his doctorate from the University of Leiden in 1694 upon which he returned to his native Germany. He entered the employment by a local count (at Detmold) as medical doctor, which however did not leave him much time for his intended publication. During the remaining four years of his life he was not able to find a publisher for his manuscripts. After his death in 1716 all the material he collected and his preparatory work for publication went to his nephew, who due to financial constraints had to sell all the manuscripts and collection. It was subsequently acquired by Sir Hans Sloane in London, himself an important and famous scientist and collector of literature on science and discoveries.

Sir Hans Sloane asked the young Swiss Johan Gaspar Scheuchzer to translate the collected informations on Japan into English. Since Scheuchzer was not a native English speaker, he often had to ask for advice. Because of this and the fact that Kaempfer wrote more positively about the Japanese than thinking at the time would allow, changes and even eliminations from the original observer’s notes were made: In particular comments on the behavior of the heathens and that some of their doings were quite reasonable (mainly concerning religious and legal questions). In 1727 when the History of Japan was published it became an immediate success and with 12 editions must be considered an absolute bestseller.

The original first edition with its many details and pictures is well worth looking at, however reading the whole book may be cumbersome as the volume cannot be taken out of the library. The revised edition by Beatrice Bodart-Bailey contains most of the important descriptions and comments and is very easy to read. The only shortcoming perhaps is that not all of the pictures are included.

Have a look at some copperplates!