Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

Synopsis

Engelbert Kaempfer's work was a best-seller from the moment it was published in London in 1727 and remains one of the most valuable sources for historians of the Tokugawa period. The narrative describes what no Japanese was permitted to record (the details of the shogun's castle, for example) and what no Japanese thought worthy of recording (the minutiae of everyday life). However, all previous translations of the history oar flawed, being based on the work of an 18th century Swiss translator or that of the German editor some fifty years later who had little knowledge of Japan and resented Kaempfer's praise of the heathen country.

Excerpt

Germany was still troubled by its most Christian and most un-Christian enemies when the Swedish delegation, of which I was a member, received its leave from the Persian court. I decided that the lesser evil would be to embark on even more distant travels and individually and voluntarily endure the resulting inconveniences rather than return to my native country and submit to the generally prevailing bad conditions and involuntary state of war it was in. I therefore said farewell to the delegation (which paid me the honor of accompanying me for one mile beyond the city) with the intention of spending another couple of years looking at other countries, nations, and courts of the Far East. I had never been used to receiving large sums of money from home and always had to rely on my own talents. Therefore, on this occasion also, I examined my qualifications and discovered the means of earning a good living among foreign nations and also of serving, albeit in a lowly capacity, the illustrious community of the Dutch Company in the Indies. This offspring of Japheth enjoys the blessings of Abraham more than any other European nation, dwelling in the huts of Shem and using the labor of Cham. With the providence of God and astute and capable management, the company has extended its arm throughout the whole of Asia to the furthest East, where its interests are promoted by means of excellent men. To come to the point: I was often able to further my aims by taking advantage of their praiseworthy kindness and approval and finally reached the court of this furthest and powerful empire of Japan. As promised recently in my Amoenitates Exoticae, I will describe and publish its present condition before dealing with my travel diaries and other works, giving assurance that everything is described and illustrated as I saw it and without exaggeration. the illustrations are perhaps not very attractive, but they are unaltered and by my own hand. the descriptions are at times incomplete, but they contain only facts that deal with the hidden workings of the empire, about which it is as difficult in Japan as in any other nation to obtain exhaustive information today. With the eradication of the Roman Christians, the imprisonment of our own merchants and the Chinese merchants, and the closing of the borders to prevent entry by and communication with foreign nations, the Japanese also closed their mouths, hearts, and souls toward us, the foreign and imprisoned visitors. All those who are in contact with us especially are bound by an oath and sign with their blood not to talk or entrust to us information about the situation of their country, their religion, secrets of government, and various other specified subjects. They are all the more prevented from doing so since the above oath requires all to act as their neighbor's informer. To make an even deeper impression, this blood oath must be repeated and renewed annually.

So much for the foreigners' standing in Japan. the Dutch, who are here as traders, have been aware of this condition for a long time, and they believe that it is impossible for a foreigner to find out anything about this country, inasmuch as there exists neither the opportunity nor the freedom to do so. Even Licentiate Cleyer, the former Dutch resident, claims as much in his letter to Mr. Scheffer.

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