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Was Meiji an absolute beginning for western science ?

Nagasaki Harbour, Kawahara Keiga (workshop of), c. 1833 - c. 1836
Nagasaki Harbour, Kawahara Keiga (workshop of), c. 1833 - c. 1836
Publication date : June 2018
Author(s) : Annick Horiuchi E-mail
Publication director : Jean-François Sabouret
Areas : Asia, Japan

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of Meiji revolution, which put an end to the feudal regime of Tokugawa and paved the way to the building of a modern State in Japan, it may be interesting to reconsider the meaning of this political moment from the point of view of history of science. Much has already been written on the rapid modernization of the Japanese society with regard to education or mentality. This has been explained by the curiosity of Japanese scholars about foreign knowledge and a long practice of translation in the country. But there is still a common perception that Japanese scholars’ engagement with western science became definitive only after Meiji.

Now that the notion of modernity has lost its magic, it is easier to break with the idea that Meiji was an absolute beginning and to have a fresh look at the society where this revolution took place and more particularly at the intellectual milieu that gave shape to it. To describe this milieu, however, is not an easy task because of its extreme diversity. People’s sensibility and motivation at this time greatly varied according to social status, level of education, school affiliation, and social recognition.    

The present analysis will examine only the intellectuals that chose to study “western science” (yōgaku). This field attracted a growing number of people during the second half of Tokugawa period so much so that when Japan opened its doors under pressure from the great powers, one could find amateurs of this science all over the country.

When did this passion emerge ? To what extent the intellectual elite was concerned by this phenomenon ? How western science coexisted with more ancient knowledge of Chinese origin ? To what extent this type of knowledge was disseminated throughout Japanese society?

To answer quantitatively to this last question is particularly difficult because only a small number of medical schools have been extensively studied, the ones famous for having trained the future Meiji elite, but we are still very ignorant of the schools of a more modest size, that have undoubtedly played a role in the dissemination of the “new science”, as it was generally called. It is nonetheless possible to identify certain trends. For this purpose, we will distinguish three profiles of intellectuals.

First, there were the official interpreters of Nagasaki, of merchant status, born into or adopted by a family of interpreters in charge of this hereditary function, and familiar from an early age with Dutch language and manners. In the early days, they acquired their language skills within their family or on the job but the training was formalized from the 19th century onward. There were about fifty interpreters occupying official positions of varied rank, and this number remained stable from the end of 17th century until the mid-nineteenth century.

Party at the Dutch Opperhoofd’s home at Dejima, by 1805-1825.
©Koninklijke Bibliotheek

Interpreters did not engage from the outset in scientific activity. As their job was to act as an intermediary for Dutch trade, interpreters were mainly required to be competent in commercial matters. They had some privileges linked to their position such as the possibility of getting rare Dutch books or learning Dutch medical know-how and it was common that they taught medicine for extra money.

Astronomy or geography became potential topics of study only from the mid-eighteenth century, when political leaders became interested in these issues and required them to translate Dutch books. At the end of the century, one can find ambitious figures that aspire to an active role in the intellectual life of the country. It is the case of Shizuki Tadao (1760-1806) who left a significant work as translator, revealing an in-depth understanding of the European scientific landscape of his time. His fields of interest were Newtonian astronomy and physics, Dutch grammar, world history and travelogues, which offered a glimpse into the way Europeans regarded primitive or colonized people.

However, Shizuki was not very typical as an interpreter and his translations did not receive a wide recognition. In fact, it was difficult for an interpreter to be successful in his career. They were torn between Dutch merchants to whom they were close, and the bakufu, which required them to be totally loyal and their scientific activity suffered from this uncomfortable situation. Those who escaped from this destiny were the ones that ended up entering the service of the shogun or of a lord, receiving in so doing a samurai status, or the ones, such as Shizuki, who left their official position very early.

Unlike their contemporaries, interpreters’ vision of European countries was devoid of any illusions. As they were often led to advice Dutch merchants, they knew their mentality from within. They were informed that relations between Great Britain, France, and Holland were far from harmonious and noticed also very soon that Dutch was not understood by foreign crews approaching Japanese coasts.

The second group of intellectuals emerged in the 1770’s, when three Edo physicians started translating a Dutch treatise of anatomy after having experienced a dissection of a human body. Despite the enormous challenges, they were driven by the strong conviction that “true” medicine could not dispense with an in-depth knowledge of the body. This led to Kaitai shinsho (The New book of Anatomy; 1774), a printed and widely disseminated book, that provoked a mini revolution among the medical community. People began to dream of a new and efficient medicine whose secrets were lying within Dutch books.

Kaitai shinsho (The New Book of Anatomy, 1774),
© Waseda University Library

What was initially nothing more than a whim of a couple of physicians turned into a large movement whose consequences surprised even those who initiated it. Though physicians were by far the largest group, the movement also attracted amateurs of geography, history, natural history or arts. The Universal geography of Johann Hübner (1668-1731) was a favorite reading of these scholars, who draw from it a rather idealized representation of the outside world.

Scholars of this movement had many features in common : unlike interpreters, they were learned men, well versed in Confucian classics, and experts in a scientific field. They belonged to an elite, as physicians or as Confucian scholars employed by warriors. Because of their close connection with the power sphere, they had access to confidential information. They also had a bias towards Dutch science, that they considered as the perfect example of precision and rationality, and regarded Chinese medicine with contempt. That is why, after having overcome their initial handicap of language, the movement played a very active role in the production of translations.

Ōtsuki Gentaku (1757-1827) at Edo was the undisputed leader of this movement at the turn of the century. His school attracted students from all parts of Japan who, in turn, set up their own school of Dutch studies when returning home. Though the place Dutch studies occupied within the intellectual landscape was modest at this time, their ascension was clearly irreversible as evidenced by the multiplication of translations, the rapid growth of the network, and the interest that bakufu showed for their work.

“Dutch New year at Ōtsuki Gentaku’s academy” (scroll, 1795)
© Waseda University Library

Detail of “Dutch New year at Ōtsuki Gentaku’s academy”(scroll, 1795)
© Waseda University Library

In 1811, the bakufu set up an « office of translation of barbarian books » where an excellent interpreter, who became samurai at this occasion, and Ōtsuki Gentaku were appointed. This small structure, which had the twofold mission of teaching and translating Dutch books, will grow steadily throughout the century, incorporating the best scholars in Dutch studies of the country. In the 1850’s, it turned into a strategic establishment, dedicated to the training in western languages and science.  

The third profile is more heterogeneous. It is mainly composed of warriors of modest rank, who had a training in Confucian classics, and turned to Dutch studies because they saw in them a means to escape from their subordinate and often miserable condition. Dutch encyclopedias or geographical treatises gave evidence of the technical advance of European countries, especially in military affairs, the economic profits they drew from their colonies, and the dominations they exercised on local population. Depending on the sensitivity of the reader, these books could raise overweening ambitions or great fears. Intellectuals of this category were highly determined individuals that were very committed to warning or advising the authorities against the danger of European countries. They were close to scholars of Dutch studies but were not necessarily specialists themselves. They were first and foremost ideologues who were concerned by Japan’s future in an international context.

This profile emerged when Japan was confronted with Russian incursions in the northern seas during the last decades of 18th century. Hayashi Shihei (1738-1793) and Honda Toshiaki (1743-1820) are typical examples of this category of intellectuals. They resurfaced in large numbers in the 1840’s when the news of the Chinese military fiasco in the Opium war became widely known. Their reaction was to rush to Edo, Nagasaki or Ōsaka where they could gather the latest information about western military techniques.

To complete this quick picture, it must be stressed that the bakufu has periodically punished these intellectuals who did not hide their sympathy for western countries. It was the case in the 1820’s, in the Siebold’s affair where Siebold is a young German physician who was discovered with forbidden maps in his luggage, or at the end of 1830’s, in the “indictment of the society of barbarian studies”(bansha no goku), which led to the death of Takano Chōei (1804-1850), physician and translator, and Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841), warrior and artist. These affairs did not put an end to western studies, but they probably had the effect of weakening networks and making them less visible when Japan finally opened its doors.

Annick Horiuchi

Former student of the Ecole normale supérieure de Paris, Annick Horiuchi received in 1990 her PhD in history of science at Paris Diderot University.
She was successively appointed Maître de conférence and Professor in the same University, where she is now teaching intellectual history and history of science in early modern Japan. She is also a member of East Asia Civilisation Research Center (CRCAO), UMR 8155 (CNRS, Collège de France/Université Paris Diderot/EPHE). Her publications include Japanese Mathematics in the Edo Period (1600-1868): A study of the works of Seki Takakazu (?-1708) and Takebe Katahiro (1664-1739), Birkhäuser Basel, 2010, and Listen, Copy, Read, Popular Learning in Early Modern Japan (co-edited with Matthias Hayek, Brill, 2014).

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Boot W.J. ed., Critical Readings in the Intellectual History of Early Modern Japan, vol. 2, Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Nakayama Shigeru, The orientation of science and technology: a Japanese view, Folkestone, UK, Global Oriental, 2009.

Blussé Leonard et al. (ed.), Bridging the divide: 400 years, the Netherlands-Japan, Leiden, Pays-Bas, Hotei, 2000.

Keywords : intellectuals ; western science ; Japan ; 19th century ; translations ; rangaku


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