A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds

By L. M. Cullen | Go to book overview

4
An age of stability: Japan's internal world,
1709–1783, in perspective

The interrogation in Edo in 1709 (with the aid of a Nagasaki interpreter) of Sidotti, an Italian Jesuit who had entered the country as a missionary, and the calm analysis by Arai Hakuseki of its implications, pointed to a dramatically more relaxed view of external challenge than in the early 1690s. Japan was about to enter on almost a century of remarkable freedom from anxiety on the external front. Only the apparition on its coasts in 1771 from Kamchatka of the Hungarian adventurer Moric Alasdar Benyowsky (1746–86) escaping from detention in Siberia seemed to call this security into question. He addressed two letters to the Dutch which announced the imminence of attack from the north. Many modern writers have argued that the Benyowsky (rendered later in Japanese as Bengoro or, in modern Japanese, Benyofusuki) affair reinforced an existing state of paranoia. There is no evidence of an immediate reaction to Benyowsky. The text of his letters is known only in the reporting of the Dutch to Batavia which contained translations from German into Dutch, which in turn were translated by the Japanese interpreters in Nagasaki. 1 There are only two—fleeting—mentions of the event in the Tsūkō ichiran, the huge compendium of official documents in the 1850s. 2 Only from 1785 when Edo missions of enquiry were sent to Ezo, did the northern frontier acquire a political significance. With the arrest of a Russian naval officer, Golownin (Golovnin), and some of his crew in 1811, it presented Japan with what was arguably its most serious external crisis

____________________
1
The German text of the letters, the translations into Dutch, and the letter from the opperhoofd to the bugyo of Nagasaki survive only in the Deshima factory records, now in The Hague. For the details, see Historical documents relating to Japan in foreign countries: an inventory of microfilm acquisitions in the library of the Historiographical Institute (Shiryō Hensanjo), 5 vols. (Tokyo, 1963–6), vol. 1 (1963), pp.196–7. The text of one of the letters is in Donald Keene, The Japanese discovery of Europe: Honda Toshiaki and other discoverers (Stanford, 1969), p.34. The scant Japanese documentation of the episode is shown in the Japanese translation of the diaries, Benyofusuki kōkai—ki [The account of Benyowsky's sea journey], ed. Mizuguchi Shigeo and Numata Jirō (Tokyo, 1971).
2
Tsūkō ichiran, 8 vols. (Tokyo, 1913), vol. 7, p. 88 (kan 273), vol. 8, pp.229–32 (kan 321), opening and concluding kan of the 49 kan on Russia, with Japanese translations of the letters appended to the final kan. There is no evidence of a large correspondence at the time.

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