From The Library – A Glimpse Into A Closed Land – Kaempfer’s Japan

Japan in the late 17th century was regarded by Europeans as a mysterious land visited by the occasional missionary. For 50 years it had been closed to foreigners and only traded with the West through the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Nederlandsche Oost Indische Compagnie  or VOC) factory located on an artificially created  island off Nagasaki. The greatest sources of Western knowledge of Japan at this time can be found in our library in the works of German naturalist and explorer Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716)., The engraving below comes from his History of Japan and shows one of the rare visits of the VOC dignitaries to the mainland. In this annual progression to the Shogun in the capital Edo, the VOC “top-brass” can be seen carried in litters amongst Japanese guides and lesser VOC staff.  

Kaempfer was born in Lemgo in North-eastern Germany the son of a pastor and .like many natural historians of the time also studied and practiced medicine. A keen traveller, he joined a Swedish diplomatic mission in 1683 travelling to Persia via way of Russia but the dream job was yet to come. He was employed as  Chief Surgeon to the fleet of the VOC and travelled to the Dutch East Indies collecting plant specimens along the way eventually arriving in the Dutch enclave in Japan in 1691.  Over the next 13 months he compiled a massive collection including artworks, surgical equipment, glassware, medicinal remedies, acupuncture pins and a huge collection of dried plants many of which were collected illegally with the help his interpreter on the pilgrimage to Edo. These can still be studied in the herbarium of Sir Hans Sloane in the Natural History Museum, London.

On his return to Europe Kaempfer started  putting his observations to paper and published the five-part Amoenitatum Exoticarum in 1712.The last part describes Japanese plants and their uses including the gingko tree (Gingko biloba). This is the first description of this plant and Kaempfer’s were the first Gingko specimens to be returned to Europe. Japanese names were included with the illustrations (left) but it seems that the tree should really be called “Gingjo”. A mistake possibly due to a misunderstanding of his translator’s dialect led to this typo becoming fixed for ever!

Kaempfer’s major work, The History of Japan was still in manuscript form when he died and it was left to Sir Hans Sloane, who had purchased his collections, to raise money for its posthumous publication in 1722.  It was an immediate best seller.  A compendium of detailed recording of Kaempfer’s observations of all aspects of Japanese life he backed it up  with facts gleaned from rare Japanese visitors to Europe and careful study of written accounts of travellers and traders. It is the greatest source of information on this period of Japanese history and even served as a reference for the libretto of the”Mikado”   

The engraving to the upper right illustrates acupuncture points and below the process of grading and making various kinds of tea. 

Tea and the elaborate ceremonies) associated with its drinking appears many times in Kaempfer’s works and his specimens are some of the oldest of the species in existence.

Kaempfer sits on our shelves appropriately alongside the work of another VOC employee, Isaac Titsingh who visited Japan around 100 years later. His delightful   Illustrations of Japan is the topic for another article perhaps?

Rob Huxley