When two worlds collide

by Florian Coulmas

JAPAN AND THE DUTCH 1600-1853, by Grant K. Goodman. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000, 304 pp., 40 pounds.

Thanks to the Tokugawa shogunate’s decision at the beginning of the 17th century to expel the Portuguese and other Christian missionaries who had started to meddle in Japanese affairs, the Netherlands, from 1640 to 1853, was the only Western nation with which Japan had any direct contact.

The Dutch enjoyed trade privileges with some commercial success. They maintained a permanent outpost at Hirado first and then on the island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbor. Throughout these years it was never unmanned.

Goodman’s book provides a thorough overview of those years of trade and intercultural exchange. It is a new and much extended edition of an earlier book. Few other books in English treat the Japanese-Dutch contact as broadly and rigorously.

Exploiting both Japanese and Dutch sources, Goodman examines all aspects of Dutch-Japanese relations: political, economic, social and intellectual.

His description of life on the island of Deshima allows us to grasp the hardship, monotony and excitement that its inhabitants experienced.

The Japanese were less interested in trade, but made great efforts to absorb whatever information they could get from the red-haired barbarians.

The interpreters of the Dutch language at Nagasaki played an especially important role. Due to their efforts, “rangaku,” or Dutch learning, became a new paradigm of scientific thought which, against the considerable odds of an entrenched tradition, was able eventually to challenge the commanding predominance of Chinese learning.

What started out as a group of commercial agents who had picked up some knowledge of Dutch developed into a hereditary system of highly regarded interpreters who had the most intimate contact with the foreigners.

Since Dutch was the language in which Western science and culture came to Japan, the interpreters were at the vanguard of innovation. The “rangakusha” were the intellectual avant-guard of their era.

Even though the Dutch presence was small in number during these two centuries, its impact can hardly be overestimated. The Japanese could learn from the Dutch in many different fields, but two were most consequential: medicine and astronomy. The human body and the universe are the two fields in which Western scientific views and the Chinese Confucian tradition most obviously and significantly differed.

The holistic notion of a harmonious universe including the maintenance of “harmony” in a healthy body that depends on a perfect balance of yin and yang could hardly be in greater contrast with the analytic approach that aims at isolating bodily organs and their functions. Goodman rightly characterizes the first autopsy performed in Japan in 1754 as a fundamental shift in orientation toward Western medicine, which is based on experiment and investigation. Portraying the daring deeds of inquisitive individuals, he brings to life a story that explains how what was perceived by many as exotic and offensive led the way into a new understanding of the human body.

The astronomical-calendrical knowledge the Dutch brought to Japan was no less an affront to the Sinic view of the universe and humanity’s place in it. In China, and by extension in Japan, star watching and calendar making were intended to strengthen the state. The close relation of the sages with the government stood in the way of scientific progress. Heliocentricity was hard to accept because Chinese astronomy was so closely tied to ontology as well as moral principles.

By introducing his readers to the writings of many rangakusha, Goodman shows how two fundamentally different world views came into direct contact in the minds of these individuals, and how hard it was for them to resolve the contradictions between them. Shizuki Tadao (1760-1806), for example, who spent many years translating Johan Lulofs’ “Introduction to Natural Science and Astronomy,” attempted to reconcile Newtonian and Copernican concepts with Chinese natural philosophy, but the attempts were futile because the basic assumptions of the Chinese and the Western “Weltanschauung” were so radically different. While the Chinese were preoccupied with “the reason why things are as they are,” Western science had at its center exhaustive experimental inquiry into the property of things. The Chinese philosophical heritage belittled empiricism. And the secretive and suspicious atmosphere generated by the “bakufu” did little to foster free inquiry and experimentation.

In spite of these constraints, the rangakusha extended their concerns into various fields of Western science, such as ballistics, mathematics, navigation, geography and electricity, as well as oil-painting and botany. It is to the rangakusha’s credit that, as Goodman puts it, they “had not hesitated to identify as superior and as worthy of adoption those European techniques which they were able to know in some depth.” And it is to Goodman’s credit that we are able to know in considerable depth how difficult a process this was.