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  • The First Samurai:Isolationism in Englebert Kaempfer's 1727 History of Japan
  • Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace (bio)

It doesn't take a front-page article in the New York Times to certify that Japanese culture is currently "hip in American mainstream."1 From sushi to manga, from taiko drumming to the latest technological toy, Americans—especially the young—embrace all things Japanese. Yet it might be worth pausing to ask not only what Japan represents through a broad spectrum of cultural, artistic, and even gastronomic events, but also how it functions: what is the semiotic purpose of Japan as it manifests itself in the West? What cultural work within current social practice does Japan perform? How is it currently being deployed?2 These questions have special relevancy in the wake of the recently popular film Lost in Translation, where Tokyo featured less as an image of itself, and more as an emblem of spiritual anomie, a place where the unlikely hero and heroine explore the loneliest reaches of their souls. They seem even more pertinent in the case of The Last Samurai, a 2003 film coproduced by Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise, in which America's most famous scientologist becomes a man of "integrity" and "honor" by subjecting himself to the rigorous and disciplined life of pre-Meiji Japan.

Certainly throughout modern Western history, Japan has functioned as place of novelty, as a source for new ideas. But more importantly, it has served to initiate self-investigation: more than many other locations, Japan facilitates Western introspection and the self-definition that follows. In a sense, Japan becomes a mythical geography that, by the very nature of its strange otherness, creates a space for meditation upon key issues of both personal and national identity. This was as much the case in 1727—which saw the translation and publication of Englebert Kaempfer's two-volume work, A History of Japan: Giving an Account of the Ancient and Present State of the Government of that Empire—as it is now.3 This remarkable work, long recognized among Japanese scholars, now receives additional attention from eighteenth-century scholars, who appreciate it as a significant record of early-modern, intercultural contact: [End Page 111] currently, a Web page edited by Wolfgang Michel-Zaitzu of Kyushu University serves as a lively forum in English, German, and Japanese for the discussion of all of Kaempfer's work, with the History receiving a great deal of the attention.4 Meanwhile recent discussions of the English translation of The History of Japan appear in essays by Annette Keogh and Robert Markley.5 For the former, Kaempfer's translated history conceptualizes "the increasing importance of vernacular languages amongst the nations of Europe," while for the latter, the same history demonstrates how Japan functioned as a fundamental challenge to the rhetoric of European imperialism.

Kaempfer's work, originally written in High Dutch at the end of the seventeenth century, presents itself as an encyclopedic summary of the natural wonders of an island nation. Kaempfer—who had previously authored the naturalistic work Amoenitaum Exoticarum politico-physico-medicarum (published in 1712 and also called Amoenitales Exotica or Exotic Pleasures)—provides a comprehensive survey of Japanese minerals and metals, the fertility of its plants, and the plenitude of its animals. He covers as well its reptiles and insects, its fish and shells, and its extraordinary medical practices. Especially notable is Kaempfer's coverage of the political state of Japan, including a listing of the hereditary emperors; his description of various Japanese religions and religious practices; his account of late seventeenth-century Nagasaki, from its palaces to its brothels; and his narration of the annual trip from Nagasaki to Jedo (the old German name for Tokyo), undertaken, as he writes, so that the Dutch visitors can "pay their duties" to the appropriate Japanese officials (2:393).

The work, as Keogh mentions, is all the more remarkable for the circumstances under which it was written: arriving in Japan on 25 September 1690, Kaempfer stayed until 31 October 1692. All that time, he and the other Dutch merchants in whose company he traveled were confined to a tiny man-made island called Deshima, a place, as Keogh aptly...


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