Tuesday, January 18, 2005


You are a scholar or an intellectual, or at least want to be. Your country has closed all its borders. There is no Internet, television, radio, newspapers or even post. All government information is censored. Books from abroad are almost impossible to come by. You know that your country is a long way behind other countries in scientific discoveries, and you are desperate to find out about these developments. Your government permits a tiny trading post at the extreme western tip of your island country, where one foreign power is allowed to set up a depot, and this is the only contact possible with anything or anyone foreign. You manage to find a primer and learn the rudiments of the language of the country which runs this trading post. Desperate for knowledge about the latest scientific discoveries, you make your way to this port. You meet other young men there who are equally desperate to acquire knowledge. You meet one of the official interpreters, who has opened up his house and set up a study group to discuss and spread the scientific ideas which he has learnt from the doctor in the settlement. Your knowledge of the foreign language enables you to get a job as an apprentice interpreter.

Such was the position of Japan and Japanese intellectuals from 1641 right to 1859, when the Dutch enjoyed exclusive trading rights with Japan, and Japan’s mirror on the world was Dejima, a fan-shaped man-made island, some 70 by 200 metres, in Nagasaki harbour.

The Dutch had replaced the Portuguese as the favoured trading nation. For seven years from 1580 the Portuguese Society of Jesus controlled the area around Nagasaki, and the town became very Christian, with some 760,000 Christians in the west of Japan. Worried about the spread of Christianity, in 1587 Shogun Totoyomi Hideyoshi, who in effect controlled all of Japan, banned all missionaries and placed Nagasaki under his direct control. However, trade with Portugal was continued. In 1597 26 Christians, including a number of priests, were crucified at Nishizaka Hill in Nagazaki. They were later sanctified. In 1612 Christianity was officially banned, and all churches in Nagazaki razed. In 1622, the next Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, executed a further 55 missionaries. In 1635 the Shogunate banned Japanese citizens from travelling abroad, and after the 1637 Christian rebellion against the Shogunate, the Portuguese were confined to Dejima, only to be expelled after growing antagonism in 1639.

They were replaced by the Dutch East India Company, already powerful in the Far East, on certain conditions, including their promise to provide information about Catholic priests hiding in the area. 700 Dutch ships were to come to Dejima in the next 218 years, bringing luxury products such as silk, textiles, dyes, skins, medicines and glassware to Japan, which in turn exported silver and copper and ceramics.

There were severe conditions imposed on visits from Japanese to Dejima. Only authorized officials, traders, porters, interpreters and courtesans were allowed on the island. In 1720 there was a slight relaxation: foreign books could be brought into Japan, and the doctors were allowed to take Japanese students. In fact, the key people in terms of cultural contact were the Dutch doctors, who, like the Japanese interpreters they met, were fascinated by what they had heard about the other culture.

Not all the doctors were Dutch but as they had blue eyes and big noses could pass as Dutch. Engelbert Kaempfer, a German, arrived on Dejima, in 1690. He gave medical lectures to two of the Dejima interpreters, Narabayashi Chinzan and Motoki Ryoi. Narabayashi later compiled information from the European texts he acquired from Kaempfer to complete the book, Koi Geka Soden, (The Origins of European Surgery), which became known all over Japan, and launched the Narabayashi school of surgery. Motoki wrote a pictorial encyclopaedia of anatomy, also based on these European sources. He also introduced Japanese people to the idea that the ideas of Copernicus, that the earth was moving through space, translating a number of works on astronomy and geography. Newton’s theories of physics and astronomy were introduced by Shiduki Tadao in Rekischo Shinsho (New Impressions of History). Shiduki also wrote a comprehensive study of Dutch grammar. Motoki’s son, Motoki Shoei, carried on in his father’s footsteps and was part of an English language research project ordered by the Shogunate that resulted in the completion of the first English – Japanese dictionary in 1814. Kaempfer, in turn, published his Japan Diary, an account of his travels to the Edo court.

Born in Sweden, botanist Carl Peter Thunberg studied botany and medicine under Carl von Linne, the father of taxonomy. During his one year stay he collected some 800 plants to take to Europe and taught a number of influential pupils. Yoshio Kogyu introduced European surgical techniques into Japan, and developed a following across Japan. His house in Nagasaki was a stopping point for all those who came to Nagasaki in pursuit of knowledge. And Hakagawa Junnan and Katsuragawa Hosho, authors of The New Book of Anatomy, were instructed by Thunberg when he visited Edo.

Philip Franz von Siebold, also German, arrived in Japan in 1823, devoted much time to studying Japanese history, geography, customs and culture, wrote three books on Japanese flora and fauna, treated Japanese patients and lectured on botany and science. He received permission to purchase a house on the outskirts of Nagasaki, which was used by his students as a private academy, something of a Dutch medical school. Its students became doctors to the Shogunate and clan leaders and also translated Dutch academic books on a number of subjects. In autumn 1828 a typhoon struck Nagasaki Harbour and damaged the Dutch ship Cornelius Houtman. Amongst the cargo maps of Japan elite crests only to be worn by elite families were discovered. Despite having applied for Japanese citizenship to show his loyalty to the Shogunate, Siebold was banned from returning to Japan and forced to leave his wife, Taki, and daughter, Ine. Another version of Madame Butterfly. The Shogunate cartographer, Kegeyasu Takahashi, died in prison.

Every year a 90-day to Edo, the capital, now Tokyo, was made, to pay respects to the Shogun, and the visitors also met with scholars and physicians. They were not always accompanied by the doctors. Pity the poor merchants and traders who tried their best to reply to questions on astronomy and anatomy. Sake was then served to deflect questions.

With the signing of Japanese trade treaties in 1854 and 1855, and the opening up of Japanese ports to foreign trade, Dejima lost its reason for existence, and was closed down for good in 1859, becoming part of the growing settlement area for European residents in 1866. The surrounding land was all filled in, so Dejima no longer looks like an island. It is now being restored rebuilt as a museum.