Friday, September 16, 2011

Kaempfer’s Japan

Today marks 360 years since the birth of the German doctor and naturalist, Engelbert Kaempfer. His fame rests on two books, both largely about Japan, where he stayed for two years during a period when the country was very much closed to foreigners. The British Library holds some of Kaempfer’s diaries, and one of his published books - History of Japan - contains several narratives for journeys which Kaempfer must have based on his diaries.

Kaempfer was born on 16 September 1651 at Lemgo, Germany, a small town in Westphalia, belonging to the Count of Lippe. His father was vicar of the Nicolai Cathedral at Lemgo. After studying medicine and natural sciences, he received his PhD in Poland, then travelled from there to Prussia, and to Sweden. In 1683, he became secretary to the Royal Swedish Ambassador Extraordinary on a special mission to Persia, where he stayed until 1685. He then spent three further years alone in the country, before sailing to Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia).

In 1690 Kaempfer joined the Dutch East India Company as a physician, and he then journeyed to Japan, where the company had a trading post on the island of Deshima, near Nagasaki in southwest Japan. This was unique at the time, since the country was all but closed to foreigners (and had been for nearly a century) with only the Dutch allowed limited access: confined to the island, they were granted just one trading mission a year to Edo (present day Tokyo). Despite the restrictions, Kaempfer stayed for two years, learning much about Japan and the Japanese from a young man appointed as his assistant.

Kaempfer returned to Amsterdam in October 1693, and soon after was awarded a medical degree at the University of Leiden. Back in Lemgo, Count de Lippe appointed him his personal physician. In 1700, Kaempfer married and he had three children, all of whom died in their infancy. Kaempfer himself died in 1716. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, the Soy Info Center, Fathom, a Columbia University learning resource, and Encyclopædia Iranica.

Kaempfer is largely remembered today for two books he authored: Amoenitatum Exoticarum (Exotic Novelties) published in 1712, with descriptions of flora such as the soy bean, camelia and Ginkgo; and History of Japan, which was first published in an English translation (from the original manuscripts) in 1727. The latter work (which can be downloaded from Internet Archive) also contains biographical information about Kaempfer, and narrative accounts of his travels. The British Library acquired many of Kaempfer’s papers - including diaries - as part of the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane, a founder of the British Museum, who had purchased Kaempfer’s literary estate from his nephew in the 1720s.

As far as I know the diaries have not been published, but the travel narratives in History of Japan must have been based originally on diary material. David van Ooijen, a lute player, has some information about Klaempfer, another lute player, on his website, including a few diary-based extracts. These come from a new (1999) translation of History of Japan by Beatrice M Bodart-Bailey called Kaempfer’s Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed.

‘An incredible number of people daily use the highways of Japan’s provinces, indeed, at certain times of the year they are as crowded as the streets of a populous European city. I have personally witnessed this on the Tōkaidō, described earlier, apparently the most important of the seven highways, having travelled this road four times. The reason for these crowds is partly the large population of the various provinces and partly that the Japanese travel more than other people. Here I will introduce the most memorable groups of travellers one meets daily on these roads.’

‘When on pilgrimage to Ise - which takes place throughout the year but especially in spring - people have to use a stretch of this great road, regardless of what province they come. So it is crowded with such travellers during the said seasons as people of both sexes, old and young, rich and poor, embark on this meritorious journey and act of devotion, attempting to the best of their ability to make their way on foot. […] There are also a number of slippery customers who pretend that they are on this pilgrimage, and as long as they are doing well spend most of the year on the road begging.’

‘Here and there one finds so-called junrei, that is, those who visit the thirty-three most important Kannon temples throughout the country. They drift around in twos or threes and at each house sing a pitiful Kannon tine; occasionally they also play a fiddle or zither not unlike the vagrants in Germany, but they do not approach travellers for alms.’

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