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'Kaempfer's Japan': Tokugawa Edo as never before

Engelbert Kaempfer, German physician and historian, first arrived in Japan in 1690 to take up the position of physician at the Dutch trading agency on the island of Deshima in Nagasaki Harbor. Although Japan had already secluded itself, the Dutch traders were allowed a certain amount of freedom. This included traveling to Edo (now Tokyo) on the annual tribute mission. Kaempfer went twice, in 1691 and 1692.

KAEMPFER’S JAPAN: Tokugawa Culture Observed, by Engelbert Kaempfer.
Edited, translated and annotated by Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey.
546 pages
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

At that time, the middle of the Genroku period, Edo was already a metropolis, with a population of 1 million people. It was orderly, clean and “modern.” Nonetheless, in Shinagawa “the execution grounds was an ugly sight for the traveler: Several human heads and disfigured bodies were lying thrown together . . . a large emaciated dog was rummaging with its hungry snout in a decaying human body.”

The observant Kaempfer noticed that this prosperous metropolis was somewhat untidy because “it was not planned at one time but gradually grew to its present size.” At the same time, he was favorably impressed by the grandness of the shogun’s castle and the person of the shogun himself, whom he found “a clever, just and strict ruler.”

This was Tsunayoshi, a leader who does not now often enjoy such adjectives. Not that Kaempfer actually saw him. He and his fellow merchants had to crawl, face down, into his presence, and crawl back out in the same position. In addition, the ruler and his courtiers were behind latticed screens.

But if Kaempfer did not get to see much of Tsunayoshi, the shogun got to see a lot of him. “He had us take off our ceremonial robes … had us pay compliments to each other, then dance, jump, pretend to be drunk, speak Japanese, read Dutch, draw, sing, put on our coats, then take them off again.”

But even while “providing amusement and performing innumerable other monkey-tricks,” Kaempfer kept his eyes open. Though given little freedom and often locked up in the various inns in which he stayed on these processions, he nonetheless amassed an enormous amount of information.

Nothing was judged too minor to be noticed. He put down what they ate: “a piece of boiled bream in brown soup . . . and finally two pieces of lemon with sugar”; and what they saw: “The ascent [of Mount Fuji] takes three days, but the descent three hours thanks to a wicker basket which is tied around the hips to slide down.”

He also put down what he was told. There are sections on geography, geology, flora and fauna; there are genealogies of deities and emperors, and much, much more. As the historian C.R. Boxer has said, “the amount of valuable and accurate information to be found in Kaempfer is astonishing.” An even more impressive tribute was paid by a somewhat later Japanese scholar who stated how “terrible” it was that Europeans had acquired such wonderfully precise information.

Guarded, watched, spied upon — one wonders how the man managed to keep such an accurate record of what he saw and what he did. He suggests one of his methods when he mentions that he often questioned curious guests “while cordially serving them European liqueurs.”

Also he was fortunate to have had as assistant “a learned young man” who had been sent to study medicine with him. The administrator allowed the relationship and “permitted this clever fellow to remain with me for the whole two years of my stay and to travel with me twice to the shogunal court.” History is silent as to what happened to the clever fellow once Kaempfer returned to Europe in 1692.

Perhaps nothing, because these findings were not published until much later. The first publication was in 1727, in English, printed in London as “The History of Japan.” It became a best seller at once although the author, dead in 1716, reaped nothing from it. And though the manuscripts have long been published in the original German and translated into other languages, including Japanese, that early English edition has been, until now, all that was available.

How welcome then is this new translation, fully annotated, with notes, glossaries, a number of interesting appendixes and the full scholarly paraphernalia that such a massive undertaking demands. Beatrice Bodart-Bailey has been scrupulous, and this edition of Kaempfer now supersedes all others.

Among its many qualities is the portrait of Kaempfer himself that emerges. He is curious, attentive and often maddeningly methodical. He is also fair to a fault (most adverse opinions are due to the political intentions of the first English translations), is rarely given to moral judgments and is for his time most unusually cosmopolitan. He said that in his various journeys he was inspired by the hope of finding the lost Asian courts of Alexander the Great. He instead found something much more real. To him we owe a vanished Genroku Japan, alive again before us, on the page.

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