The First Samurai: Isolationism in Englebert Kaempfer's 1727 History of Japan

  • Kowaleski-Wallace E
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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,' was originally written in Dutch and published in English in 1726 in a translation by Johann Scheuchzer. His translation advanced an isolationist agenda and served as a parable for British politics, suggesting that Britain would have done better if it had followed Japan's isolationism. 'History of Japan' expressed a tension between two messages, one that defended the Japanese policy of 'sakoku' [isolation] and one that identified the problems that arise when a country is isolated. Kaempfer wrote the book when he was confined to an island off mainland Japan - the information for the book being provided to him by Japanese interpreters - and the text articulated his personal resentment over these isolating circumstances. Scheuchzer made editorial decisions that favored isolationism, and the translation thus expresses a defense of 'sakoku' while also providing evidence that shows that such a defense is problematic. Scheuchzer's emphasis of the isolationist polemic makes the text consistent with other early-18th-century British anti-expansionist literary works. The paradox of 'History of Japan' is that it shows how the early modern rejection of cosmopolitanism could only arise through transnational contact.

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  • Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace

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