Itinerario - International Journal on the History of European Expansion and Global Interaction, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2006, pp. 160-162.


Wolfgang Michel

Review: Timon Screech, ed., Japan Extolled and Decried: Carl Peter Thunberg's Travels in Japan, 1775-1776;
Timon Screech, ed., Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns: Isaac Titsingh and Japan, 1779-1822

The great influence of Engelbert Kaempfer's epoch-making account of Japan (Heutiges Japan), published successively in English, French, Dutch and German editions, was the result of its richness in factual details, its systematic structure and its lavish illustrations prepared by J.G. Scheuchzer. In an earlier work, Amoenitates Exoticae (1712), Kaempfer laid the foundations for professional studies of Japanese acupuncture, moxibustion, materia medica and, last but not least, botany, a field in which merchants were as much interested as scholars. One might assume that these pioneering contributions would have stimulated an upsurge of similar publications from his successors at the Dutch trading post Dejima (Deshima), but not until eight decades after Kaempfer's time in Japan (1690-92) did an equally ambitious observer land in Nagasaki eager to supply Europe with an up-to-date description of the country. Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), a disciple of the eminent Carl Linné (Linnaeus), did not stay as long as his predecessor, but by this time, Japanese physicians had turned their attention to human anatomy. Their study of Dutch books was showing the first impressive results, and their interest in things Western was at a much higher level. Luckily, Thunberg was able to continue exchanging materials with his Japanese counterparts even after his return to Sweden.

In contrast to Kaempfer, who managed to publish only fractions of his observations and who died as an embittered and isolated man on the outskirts of his native city of Lemgo in Germany, Thunberg developed an impressive career as a professor of medicine and natural philosophy at the University of Uppsala. He had seen Kaempfer's collection in London, and when he began to record his travels, he was determined to surpass the German physician. Thunberg's Resa uti Europa, Africa, Asia, förstättad Åren 1770-1779, printed from 1788 to 1793, gives an account of his travels and observations in South Africa, Java, Japan and Ceylon. Following Kaempfer's example, he also published a Flora Japonica (1784) and Icones plantarum japonicarum (1805), both milestones in botanical studies. Although supplemented by the writings of V. Golownin, A. Laxman, I. Titsingh and, as far as the Japanese language is concerned, by J. Klaproth, Thunberg's work remained the main source of information on Japan until Ph. Fr. von Siebold began to publish Nippon in 1832.

Timon Screech has taken on the laborious task of making some important parts of Thunberg's observations on Japan available to the English-reading community, which until now has been confined to the English editions of the 1790s. Screech's book title takes up a phrase in Thunberg's preface, providing an opening for a fresh look while signalling that this is a selection, not a reprint of the whole work. The introduction (68 pp, 30 illustrations) presents a stimulating and carefully researched outline of Thunberg's life, his interactions with Japanese physicians, and the publishing history of the Resa uti Europa, Africa, Asia volumes. Another 37 pages of notes provide information on the text and its background.
A facsimile print of Thunberg's German edition edited by E. Friese in 1991 and a translation of Thunberg's journey to Edo from Swedish into Japanese prepared by Takahashi Fumi in 1994 show that this Swedish traveller has never been forgotten. On the other hand, Isaac Titsingh (1745-1812) received little attention even from researchers until the 1990s, when Frank Lequin shed new light on the life and collections of this Dutch opperhoofd (trading-post chief). Regardless of his mercantile mission in Japan, Titsingh - who held doctorates in law and medicine-set out to compile A Description of Japan to be printed simultaneously in three languages. He too had read Kaempfer's magnum opus and was well aware of his chances. By writing a full history of Japan, including biographies of the Tokugawa rulers plus several shoguns who had ruled after Kaempfer's days, he hoped to make Kaempfer's abbreviated accounts obsolete. The second part of his work was to look at the nature and life of the people, marriage and funeral customs, food, and suicide, and was also to include poetry, a topic that both Thunberg and Kaempfer had grossly neglected. Furthermore, by allowing (translated) sources to speak for themselves, Titsingh intended to introduce a new way of presenting Japan that would draw the attention of the public, even away from Thunberg's recently published book. However, three years at Dejima could never have been enough time to succeed in such an endeavour. Titsingh's language skills were not up to the task. When he died in Paris, it was obvious that he had failed. He might even have fallen into oblivion if the eminent orientalists Abel Rémusat and H.J. von Klaproth had not gone through the bulk of his notes and papers, finally publishing the Mémoirs et anecdotes sur la dynastie régnante des djogouns in 1820. An English version translated from the French manuscript was printed two years later as Illustrations of Japan - Private Memoirs and Anecdotes of the Reigning Dynasty.

In 2000, this edition was reprinted as the third of 14 volumes of The West's encounter with Japanese civilization: 1800-1940 (Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, introd. by Catharina Blomberg). Thus, one might ask: why read a selection when the complete text is available? However, in Titsingh's case, it is more than simply a pleasant book that contains redundant parts, and parts of questionable accuracy. It is Titsingh himself, his intentions, and his ideas related to Japan that are of interest. Screech has selected chapters from the Illustrations of Japan and combined these with essays “On the legal suicide of the Japanese”, “On Japanese poetry”, “The character of the Japanese people” and Titsingh's Secret Diary from the archives of the Dutch East India Company. A detailed introduction (74 pages, 22 illustrations) leads us into the world of a fascinating man. Screech's choice of illustrations demonstrates his intimate knowledge of source materials in Japan. This edition is also well annotated and indexed.

Because they focus on different topics and ways of interacting with Japan, both books should be read together. Thunberg's texts present life in Nagasaki and his journey to the court, and give an outline of Japan and the Japanese. Titsingh describes the world of the shoguns and gives his views on various topics. His diary shows how trading-post chiefs had to cope with life and work at Dejima. His “Philosophical Discourse”, written for his friend Gotô Sôzaemon, is an impressive attempt to convey Enlightenment thought to the Japanese. Neither book alone will be sufficient for carrying out research on Thunberg or Titsingh, but thanks to the expertise of the editor, those doing such research will want to read both books. After many years of nerve-racking critical editing, I found Screech's presentation most refreshing and educating. These books well deserve a place on our shelves.

  • Timon Screech), Japan Extolled and Decried: Carl Peter Thunberg and Japan, 280pp. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Timon Screech, Scret Memoirs of the Shoguns: Isaac Titsingh and Japan, 320pp. London: Routledge, 2005.



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