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  • The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan by Federico Marcon
  • James R. Bartholomew
The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan by Federico Marcon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. xi + 416. $45.00 cloth, $45.00 e-book.

How does a “traditional” pattern of inquiry into the mysteries of nature give rise—or give way—to an understanding based in modern science? This is hardly a new historical question in any context, geographical or cultural, but Federico Marcon provides an important new perspective on the subject with reference to early modern Japan. His analysis is sophisticated, philosophically informed, and merits close attention. The work can be seen as a case study centered on the intellectual domain of honzōgaku 本草学, which one may translate as natural history, materia medica, or pharmacology. Marcon’s time frame encompasses about two centuries, from the end of the seventeenth century to the 1880s. He does not conceive of the book as a “comprehensive history” of honzōgaku but instead as a discussion of “changing attitudes toward the material environment” (p. 5). Although this characterization is accurate, one can also define the book’s purpose as an inquiry into intellectual and other changes that framed Japanese society’s engagement with honzōgaku.

One particular development in China set the stage. In 1596, during the late Ming, Li Shizhen 李時珍 published the Bencao gangmu 本草綱目 (J. Honzō kōmoku; Systematic materia medica), a compendium [End Page 241] that exerted a major influence throughout East Asia. Japanese scholars, among others, became actively interested in botanical and medical studies, perhaps facilitated by the new Tokugawa era of political stability. Their approach was initially lexicographical as they sought to grasp the full meaning of Li’s text. A Japanese first edition of the Chinese work appeared in 1637 under the editorship of Hayashi Razan 林羅山, the leading neo-Confucian scholar in Japan and later founder of the shogunate’s academy, the Shōheikō 昌平黌. Hōnzogaku also benefited from the establishment of the Koishikawa 小石川 Botanical Garden, which Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi 徳川綱吉 sponsored at Edo in 1684. This institution later offered specialized training for would-be naturalists and herbalists.

A new phase in the evolution of honzōgaku began with the public career of Kaibara Ekiken 貝原益軒 (d. 1714) and the accession to power of Tokugawa Yoshimune 徳川吉宗 as Japan’s eighth shogun in 1716. Kaibara, in his 1709 work, Yamato honzō 大和本草, had argued in favor of greater empirical observation and experimentation in regard to materia medica. Yoshimune as shogun excelled in promoting Kaibara’s agenda, explicitly or otherwise. In 1720, the shogun rescinded the earlier ban on importing books from Europe, and during the 1730s, he commissioned a major national survey that aspired to describe and catalog all plant and animal species present in Japan. Marcon notes that this sort of information gathering was typical of many Eurasian states during the same era. He also suggests that this and follow-up surveys probably exceeded in scope any similar surveys in other parts of the world at the time.

The last half of the eighteenth century was an especially momentous period for honzōgaku and the analogous field of study in Europe. Reflecting a broader trend, the multitalented samurai physician Hiraga Gennai 平賀源内, whom some have called the Leonardo da Vinci of Japan, organized in 1762 the largest exhibition of plants, animals, and minerals ever held in Japan up to that time. Over 1,300 species were exhibited at Yushima 湯島 in Edo. Meanwhile, Carl Linnaeus, professor at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, was actively at work (during the years 1735–1758) on his epoch-making Systema Naturae, the system of classification universally applied to plants and animals in modern times. The Linnaean scheme was apparently introduced to Japan through the 1775–1776 visit of Linnaeus’s protégé, Carl Peter [End Page 242] Thunberg, temporarily employed by the Dutch East India Company at Nagasaki. Not too many years later, Japanese scholars were applying the Linnaean taxonomy to local flora and fauna, while also gaining ever more detailed access to the expanding literature of European science. Udagawa Yōan 宇田川榕菴 began translating the modern chemical...


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