IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 22 | Theme 400 years of Dutch-Japanese Relations


A Song for the Shogun
Engelbert Kaempfer and 17th-c. Japan

The German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1712) stayed in Japan from 1690 to 1692. He was the first member of the VOC factory at Deshima to study Japan and to write an extensive report on his findings, which was first published in 1727. A recent study of his original texts and illustrations reveals the distortions inflicted on the original material.


As a poet, he could hardly be called gifted, judging from the one love song he left us. But as a scholar observing foreign cultures his talent was considered to be quite outstanding. In spite of the fact that on his arrival in Batavia in 1689 Engelbert Kaempfer had been assigned the relatively menial post of medical officer on noisy 'Onrust', the wharf in the harbour, he caught the attention of Johannes Camphuis, who recognized in him 'a man combining extraordinary learning with superior powers of observation'.

Camphuis (1635-1695), the Director General of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia, was a dedicated Japanophile. During several postings to Japan, Camphuis had endured the prison-like conditions imposed upon the Dutch traders on the small man-made island in the Bay of Nagasaki, and he was convinced that crossing the damp and cold Hakone Mountains on the annual trip to the shogun at Edo (Tokyo) had severely impaired his health. Yet he nevertheless cherished everything Japanese; he had himself a Japanese house built on an island off Batavia and, to the great dismay of his guests, had them manoeuvre Japanese food into their mouths with 'little branches of wood'. Camphuis had collected a considerable amount of literature on Japan, and when he sent Kaempfer to Nagasaki with the mission to produce a scholarly description of the country, he made this available to him, supplemented by records of the Company and diaries written by its employees. Thus, Kaempfer was well informed about Japan even before he set foot on Japanese soil. He knew, for instance, not only that there was an enormous Buddha statue (daibutsu) at Kyoto, but also that the figure was sixty feet high and sat cross-legged.

Searching for Kaempfer's daibutsu - the enormous bronze Buddha statue which once rivalled that still at Nara -- on a map of Kyoto today, one finds no more than a police box of that name (daibutsu koban) in the vicinity of the National Museum. Yet, in Kaempfer's time the statue was so famous that a visit was made compulsory for the Dutch delegation on their return journey from Edo, to show off Japan's riches. Made by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) and restored by his son Hideyori (1593-1615), it was, however, left in disrepair by the Tokugawa after it was struck by lightning. Except for some of the huge boulders that supported the surrounding walls and the famous temple bell that featured in Tokugawa Ieyasu's quarrel with Hideyori, the once spectacular landmark has disappeared. Screens of Kyoto portray the enormous building and compound of the daibutsu, but Kaempfer's drawing remains the only detailed pictorial record of the statue located inside. In his writings, he noted the particulars, from the 'long bovine ears' and the 'frizzy hair' to the fact that there would be space enough for three Japanese mats on its outstretched palm. He measured out the distances for a more detailed record, and noted that the width between the shoulders was equivalent to fifteen paces. In the corner of his sketch he added a human figure to convey the enormous size of the statue.

Kaempfer left us a equally detailed and valuable record of Edo castle, which is usually indicated by a blank on Japanese maps of the period because of the castle's strategic importance and the laws forbidding the recording and dissemination of information about it. Kaempfer carefully described the complex and highly guarded approach to the main building (hon maru) and the delegation's progress within it. He also gave details of his two audiences with the shogun. The first, the presentation of gifts and greetings, was formal and very brief. But not long after his accession, the fifth shogun, Tsunayoshi, requested a second, informal audience, in which he would question the Dutch at random and ask them to perform innumerable 'monkey tricks'. Seated with his women, clerics and close servants behind a bamboo blind, the shogun would ask the Dutch to sing and dance, to enact how couples greeted, quarrelled and even kissed each other, he would request to see their belongings, and at times even to take off their wigs and draw close to the blind for inspection.

Some European writers, like Oliver Goldsmith, criticized the Dutch for submitting to the humiliating requests of a heathen potentate all for the love of trade and profit. But for Kaempfer, the audience with the shogun was the highlight of his trip to Japan. He described his surroundings with great care, including the glimpses he caught of the shogun and his women through the cracks of the blind, noted his conversation with the shogun verbatim, and dedicated his most detailed and accomplished drawing to the event. In the centre of this drawing, a man stands upright with wig and hat in front of the shogun's court, presenting a self-composed love-song with grand gestures and showing no sign of embarrassment or humiliation.

But it was not only the highbrow and spectacular that caught Kaempfer's eye. On the contrary, matters that drew his attention were ones that no Japanese contemporary would have considered worth the brush and ink. The sanitized toilets of the rich and the huts of the paupers were all described with equal attention to detail. As a botanist, he examined the environment with expertise, leaving us not only with a record of the plants he saw, but also of the nature and the type of soil, as well as of what conditions had been before industrialization changed the face of the earth. Thus, Kaempfer's descriptions provide us with a time capsule of late seventeenth-century Japan, making it a favourite reference source for scholars writing on the period, both Japanese and Western alike. However, though Kaempfer's record has been cited many times, it has rarely been cited correctly. His manuscript was published in 1727 after his death, and first only in an English translation. It went to press with many errors and, once out, it also became a victim of the contemporary prejudices and lack of knowledge about Japan. Kaempfer's drawings were either 'improved upon' or ignored, such as in the case of his important sketch of the Kyoto daibutsu. The French and Dutch translations were based on the English one, thus perpetuating the mistakes of the latter. When a German edition finally appeared some fifty years after Kaempfer's death, his language was 'modernized,' and mistakes and changes were incorporated in the process. As for the copper plate prints made originally for the English edition, they were re-used in all publications.

In 1990, on the 300th anniversary of Kaempfer's visit to Japan, an exhibition was opened in Tokyo which made his unknown drawings, normally kept at the British Library in London, available to the public for the first time. Last year, a new English, annotated translation of Kaempfer's work was published. A transcription of Kaempfer's German manuscript is scheduled to go to press in 2001. *

Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey is a professor of Japanese history at Otsuma Women's University, Tokyo, and has published widely on Kaempfer and seventeenth-century Japan. Recently she published an annotated translation of Kaempfer's work, Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa culture observed,
Hawaii University Press, 1999.
E-mail: Bodart@Otsuma.ac.jp

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 22 | Theme 400 years of Dutch-Japanese Relations