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Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716)

The History of Japan, giving an account of the ancient and present state and government of that empire, of its temples, palaces, castles and other buildings ... : together with a description of the Kingdom of Siam ; v. 1 / E. Kaempfer. 1727

Leather-bound in red goatskin with gold tooling | 46.7 x 29.2 x 5.1 cm (book measurement (conservation)) | RCIN 1074485

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Some knowledge of Japan had been disseminated to Europe in the sixteenth century through the accounts of Roman Catholic missionaries such as Francis Xavier. However, following the restriction of trade from the 1620s, first-hand information about the country was largely available to Europeans only via VOC merchants stationed at the ‘Japan factory’ at Deshima. Dutch accounts at this time evoked romantic images of an isolated country with mysterious customs, views that coloured western notions of Japan during the ‘closed country’ (sakoku) period.

The term sakoku in fact owes its existence to Engelbert Kaempfer’s History of Japan. It was coined by the Nagasaki translator Shizuki Tadao in his 1801 Japanese-language edition of the work. Before this time, the policy was known as kaikin or ‘maritime restrictions’. Kaempfer served as surgeon at Deshima in 1690 – 92 and was able to gather extensive notes on the history, culture and natural history of the country, primarily during his two excursions accompanying the annual Dutch procession to the capital, Edo.

Returning to Europe in 1695, Kaempfer began to make arrangements to publish his findings. He produced a survey of Japanese botany, Amoenitatum exoticarum, in 1712, but died before he was able to publish his history of the country itself. Fortunately, his manuscript notes survived and were purchased by the botanist and collector Sir Hans Sloane (1660 –1753) who passed them to his librarian, Gaspar Scheuchzer (1702– 29), to translate into English. The resulting two-volume publication, of which this is a copy, was dedicated to George II. It was the most comprehensive European account of Japan for over a century and the first such work in English.

Kaempfer’s History also contained plates taken from authentic Japanese woodblock prints, including this, the first contemporary depiction of Edo to appear in European literature. The book’s influence was wide-ranging and it remained an important account of Japan and Japanese life until well into the nineteenth century.

Text adapted from Japan: Courts and Culture (2020)