The headless body of a woman in her 50s was laid on a straw mat inside a hut at Kotsukahara in Edo’s Senju area. Born in Kyoto and nicknamed “Aochababa,” sketchy court records indicate the woman had been convicted of killing her adopted children. She had been executed by beheading that very morning, March 4, 1771.

Forty-seven year-old Maeno Ryotaku, Sugita Genpaku, 37, Nakagawa Jun’an, 31, and several other doctors in the hut were eagerly waiting for dissection to begin on this rare occasion when permission for the procedure had been granted.

Under the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867, Western medicine was never officially approved, and traditional Chinese medicine monopolized authority in the field. Hence, the man who showed up at the shack to do the dissection was not a doctor, but a 90-year-old member of the executioner “caste,” who said he’d been opening up bodies to show to the medically curious since he was young.

So it was with practiced ease that the old man sliced open the chest and abdomen with a large, sword-like knife, then pointed to each organ, explaining, “This is the heart . . . this is the liver . . . and this is the stomach,” as the doctors’ notes recorded.

“What is that over there?” Genpaku asked him, pointing to a small organ. “I don’t know the name, but I’ve found it there every time,” he answered, adding, “You are the first doctors I ever met who asked questions.”

For the dissection, Ryotaku and Genpaku had each brought along a copy of “Tafel Anatomia” — a 1734 Dutch translation of Johan Adam Kulmus’ 1722 “Anatomische Tabellen,” an illustrated German encyclopedia of human anatomy. Throughout the dissection, they compared the dead woman’s innards with the pictures in the book.

Though such comparison between a textbook and observed evidence seems today merely simple scientific procedure, the very fact that both doctors owned copies of that book was even more extraordinary than the dissection being performed before their eyes.

Then, in the days before mass printing, books of any kind were so precious that even doctors to daimyo could not afford to buy them. It was only with his lord’s permission — and funds — that Genpaku had been able to acquire “Tafel Anatomia” just days before, from a Dutch delegation staying in Edo. Ryotaku had paid for his copy in the same way, when his domain sent him to study Dutch in Nagasaki from 1769 to 1770. After the shogunate shut off Japan from the outside world in the early 17th century, the port town had been the only one open to foreigners — specifically Dutch and Chinese — and so was Japan’s “eyes and ears” on civilisation overseas.

Before they first set eyes on their Western anatomy books, for all those present at the dissection the only previous pictorial reference had been the drawings in books of Chinese medicine. Now confronted by the reality, and through consulting their Dutch tomes, they all realized that their long-held skepticism of the accuracy of those Chinese drawings had been well founded.

Already quite overwhelmed by these gory revelations, after the dissection was over, Ryotaku, Genpaku and Jun’an walked around the execution ground picking up human bones they found lying around on the ground and comparing them with the illustrations. Amazed to find them, too, accurately pictured in the book, the three doctors were appalled by their ignorance.

“I am ashamed of myself that I did not even know how the human body was structured, although it should be the fundamental knowledge required for doctors,” Genpaku declared to the others, who themselves perhaps felt the same.

On their way home, the three were in a state of shock, and pledged to work together — for the sake of Japan’s medical advancement — to translate the book as soon as they could. Indeed, Ryotaku proposed that they should meet to start the project the very next day at his home in Tsukiji Teppozu in the precincts of the Edo residence of his daimyo, Okudaira Masaka of Kyushu’s Nakatsu domain.

This they did, and the three sat in a room with the two copies of “Tafel Anatomia” open before them.

They stared at the first page of text for some time without uttering a word. Ryotaku finally broke the silence, and asked whether the others could read Dutch. “I only know the alphabet,” Jun’an said. “I know nothing,” Genpaku said. Ryotaku, who had learned a few hundred words from Dutch interpreters during his 100-day stay in Nagasaki, was dismayed by their confessions — and also by the fact that he could not read any of the words printed on the page.

As bizarre or even absurd as it may seem, this was how Japan’s first academic contact with the West began.

For those directly involved, it was an epiphany. In his memoirs, titled “Rangaku Kotohajime (The Beginnings of Dutch Learning),” Genpaku later described that first translation session, saying: “I felt as if we had sailed out to sea on a boat without a rudder or an oar, and there was nothing in sight but the boundless views ahead. We were simply appalled.”

Before the three doctors launched their project, no one in Japan could read Dutch or any other Western language. Since 1641, when the shogunate ordered Dutch traders confined to the small island of Dejima off Nagasaki — and designated it the only trading post with the Netherlands to be allowed in the country — the shogunate’s few official interpreters had been Japan’s only Dutch-speakers. However, these interpreters, who were exclusively Japanese and held hereditary positions, learned only verbal skills and never studied reading or writing.

In the early 17th century, though, things began to look up for those eager to study Western medical science after the eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, lent his support to the acquisition of Western knowledge. Under him, the import of Dutch books and other European items unrelated to Christianity — an absolute taboo under the Tokugawa rule — was allowed. He even appointed two academics, Aoki Konyo (1698-1769) and Noro Genjo (1693-1761), to learn the Dutch language. This they had to attempt in Edo, though, principally by interviewing interpreters with the Dutch mission from Dejima that stayed at Nagasakiya, an inn in Nihonbashi Hongokucho, during its annual spring visit to the Edo Castle.

While Genjo wrote a few books on Dutch culture based on his interviews with interpreters, Konyo left a list of some 700 Dutch words with Japanese translations. Ryotaku was Konyo’s student, and under him he learned the alphabet. He then picked up a few hundred words more in Nagasaki from Yoshio Kogyu (1724-1800) — a doctor of Western medicine who was the top interpreter at the time — before procuring a Dutch dictionary on sale in the Kyushu town.

At Ryotaku’s residence, Katsuragawa Hoshu, a young doctor and hereditary member of the shogun’s medical staff, joined the three in the translation sessions that were going nowhere. Though they met every few days, most times the doctors just sat in silence, occasionally heaving sighs. Because Ryotaku by then knew about 1,000 Dutch words, he was Edo’s top Dutch expert — and so had to take the burden of the translation project on his shoulders whether he wanted to or not.

A bigoted and inflexible academic, Ryotaku at first insisted on trying to translate the book from the first chapter onward. Eventually, though, Genpaku argued successfully that they should instead turn to the pages illustrating the human body — and it was only then that they began to make progress.

Here they found descriptions of body parts in caption-like summaries, which they tried to translate using Ryotaku’s Dutch dictionary. However, when they were unable to understand the dictionary entry for an unknown word, they had to find the definitions of those key words in the definition that they didn’t know — which often led to more key words they didn’t know . . . and so on. Finally, after this painstaking detective work had allowed them to fill in most of the unknowns in an illustration’s summary, the four doctors would, through discussion and reasoning, attempt to resolve their translation into Japanese.

Every time they succeeded in making sense of a sentence in this enormously time-consuming way, they apparently cheered like children. Conversely, when they were absolutely stuck on crucial words, no one talked and it would be in a state close to grief that the three left Ryotaku’s home late at night.

On his part, Ryotaku — who spoke of the project as his “life’s work” — became so absorbed in it that he stopped leaving his house at all, even to make routine visits to his lord’s residence. Naturally, some colleagues began to complain about this behavior, but Lord Masaka was generous. “Ryotaku is an eccentric sort,” Masaka said, while allowing Ryotaku to continue his project. “Treating patients every day is one form of contribution, and making efforts for the people of the future is another form of contribution,” he told his aides.

In March 1772, Ryotaku’s group visited Nagasakiya and asked the interpreters with that year’s Dutch delegation from Nagasaki for the meaning of some words they had failed to crack. Then, when even the top interpreters could barely help them — and were themselves stunned by the quality of the doctors’ translations — Ryotaku and his friends realized they had reached the peak of Japan’s Dutch-language skills . . . however lowly a peak that might be.

Nonetheless, as other doctors eager to learn the language came and went, the group named their project. That name would go down in Japanese history attached to the medical watershed facilitated by their studies: rangaku (Dutch learning).

However, 18 months after they had embarked on their voyage, and with the first draft of their 249-page book almost completed, Genpaku and his collaborators faced further — and potentially fatal — obstacles to publication.

A shrewd operator

This was because, although the shogunate appeared well-disposed to Dutch learning, there was a distinct possibility hardliners might react with vehemence to an unprecedented publication like this. Indeed, only six years earlier, Goto Rishun’s “Oranda Banashi (Dutch Anecdotes)” — a simple collection of homespun Dutch tales — had been banned and its author, who was an academic, punished . . . because the book contained the Western alphabet.

Unlike Ryotaku, however, Genpaku was smooth and shrewd. He proposed to first publish only the illustrations of the human body to test the authorities’ reaction to those and an accompanying advertisement for the full book to come. This pamphlet, titled “Kaitai Yakuzu (Illustrated Anatomy),” only listed his name and Jun’an’s as translators, along with that of an illustrator from their Obama domain in present-day Fukui Prefecture. His idea was obviously for the three of them — and, if things went badly, only their domain — to take entire responsibility, and so protect the complete translation by sheltering Ryotaku.

Even so, after “Kaitai Yakuzu” came out early in the new year of 1773, in his memoirs Genpaku tells of spending sleepless nights in fear of the authorities’ wrath. Instead, a month passed and nothing happened as the established Chinese medical circles intentionally ignored this publication that effectively pulled the anatomical rug from under them. However, a steady stream of educated men keen to learn about Western medicine kept turning up on Genpaku’s doorstep in Shin-Ohashi, in present-day Koto Ward.

Encouraged by this, and the absence of retribution, Genpaku redoubled his efforts to ready the translation of “Tafel Anatomia” for publication. In doing so, though, he had to face down staunch opposition from Ryotaku, who felt it would take much longer to finalize a complete, error-free version — and whose modesty made him wish to avoid the limelight.

Ryotaku’s reservations notwithstanding, Genpaku commissioned Western-style painter Odano Naotake from the Akita domain to copy the realistic illustrations from “Tafel Anatomia” for the translation, which was titled “Kaitai Shinsho (New Book of Anatomy).”

With good reason, however, Genpaku was still wary of the bureaucratic authorities, and so when “Kaitai Shinsho” was finally published in five volumes in August 1774, he pulled another ace from his sleeve. With an audacity born out of sheer commitment to his cause, he not only presented copies to the shogun’s senior councilor Tanuma Okitsugu, and to the Imperial Household in Kyoto (through shogunal doctor Katsuragawa Hosan, father of Hoshu) — but also to Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu himself.

Like the pamphlet that preceded it, “Kaitai Shinsho” also did not list Ryotaku’s name, though he was praised in the preface written by Dutch interpreter Yoshio Kogyu. And though Genpaku received protests from some eminent doctors of Chinese medicine, the publication turned him into an instant celebrity. Those seeking to become his pupils were now knocking on his door in ever greater numbers, and from then until his death at age 84 he led Japan’s ever-expanding school of Western medicine and Dutch learning.

In contrast, Ryotaku withdrew into private study of the Dutch language and resisted taking any acolytes under his wing — or even meeting visitors. Finally, nearly three decades after “Kaitai Shinsho” was first published, he moved as a frail old man into his daughter’s house near Kanda Otamagaike, where he died in 1803.

And so it is that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the passing of a man who truly managed to sail out to sea on a boat without a rudder or an oar . . . for the people of the future.

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