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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Near Collapse of Japanese Way Of Life Noted In 1880

I am about to present to you a letter written by a natural scientist who traveled to Japan in 1879, and not only saw how changes in the socio-economic system of the country was affecting the way the people cared about its former glorious samurai past under the Shogun, but also provides some interesting insight on Japan's flora and fauna (plants and animals), though admittedly, the animal life is restricted pretty much to the water and the water's edge.

This look back is courtesy of a scientific expedition undertaken by the Swedish Arctic Exploration vessel, the SS Vega (see image above).

Known as the Vega Expedition (Vegaexpeditionen in Swedish) of 1878–1880, it was under the leadership of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, and was the first Arctic expedition to navigate through the Northeast Passage (the water route between Europe and Asia through the Arctic Ocean, and the first voyage to circumnavigate Eurasia.
The route of the Vega Expedition
Though it was initially a troubled enterprise, the successful expedition is considered to be among the highest achievements in the history of Swedish science.

At the conclusion of its Arctic exploration, the Vega decided to take a roundabout route home after exploring the Arctic waters, and decided to do some sightseeing and mild research of interesting locales, including Japan.

It is worth noting that although the year is 1879 (when the account was written, and 1880 when presented in the newspaper), Japan had first 'opened' its doors to foreigner missions about 20 years earlier…

He notes that within that 20 year time period, the world has actually become quite familiar with the Japanese, so common references to writing about climbing Mt. Fuji, or commenting about kimono or how they eat with chopsticks is pretty much old news for the visitors of 1879, as well, it is expected, for the newspaper reader of 1880 who has been bombarded with Japanisms in the media for the past 20 years, and have probably even seen a real Japanese person via a visiting circus (Read my history on that HERE).

Basically, the writer fears that average westerner has become a tad jaded regarding the mysterious Japanese who seem intent on becoming mow European, now that they have seen the error of their chonmage (pony-tail, top-knot hair style of the samurai class) years as a warrior nation.

So… having said that… why do I think this is one of the most interesting essays I have ever seen on Japan?


As detailed in the February 12, 1880 edition of the New York Herald via a letter from Professor A.E. Nordenskiöld to Dr. O. Dickson, at Gothenburg (the second-largest city in Sweden), we are given a nice account of the research ship Vega's stay in Japan in 1879.

A.E. Nordenskiöld (b. November 18, 1832 - d. August 12, 1901) was a Finnish baron, botanist, geologist, mineralogist and arctic explorer of Finland-Swedish origin. He was a member of the prominent Finland-Swedish Nordenskiöld family of scientists.
Professor A.E. Nordenskiöld

(And... thanks again to Vinny for suggesting I glimpse at the newspaper materials from the Early American Newspapers via This is one heck of a fine resource!!!)

Not just a sailor's account of the people or the customs - here we get to see the foreigners view of Japan's flora and fauna - apparently something the international community had not properly documented.

This is NOT a dry letter. It's written in simple language despite the fact that the letter appears to be between two scientific colleagues.

A bit of insight:
Tokio = Tokyo
Kioto = Kyoto
Labuan = a territory off the coast of Borneo in East Malaysia.
Hinloopan Strait= is the strait between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in Svalbard, Norway.
Okuaki = a Japanese native's surname who probably never offered any given name to his western employer or friend, something that continues to be the de facto norm in 2014.
Literato = Italian tern meaning 'the literate'
Sinatism (under the book list) = I am assuming this is related to the Sinai, and thus to Judaism.
Mikado = Title given to the Emperor of Japan.

I'll not present the whole article, but will skip to the more poignant facts in the missive - and remind you that the ship has just come back from a very successful mission in the Arctic Ocean. And, while purposely limiting themselves at other ports with only enough time to gather samples without becoming in-depth (a fact the letter writer acknowledges was done on purpose), the Vega broke that rule when visiting Japan thanks to a what they termed to be a 'flattering reception'.

"It is, however, however, only due to mention that the government, learned societies, prominent natives and foreigners at Yokohama, Tokio, Kobe, Kioto and Nagasaki have rivaled each other in rendering the Vega's expedition a homage that seldom was extended to a kindred undertaking."

You get the point.

The longer stay in Japan was actually done because of the typhoons that hit the area when the Vega was in Japan around September… there's usually about five or so typhoons around that time.

Animal Life In The Sea Of Japan
"It has already been mentioned that the results of the dragging along the shores of Japan were very slight, owing to the poverty of animal life at the bottom of the sea, and the same may be said in regard to the draggings between Hong kong, Labuan and Singapore, and also in the Malacca Sound, notwithstanding the fact that the bottom consisted alternately of clay, sand, coral sand, stones and rocks, which ought to have been at least somewhere favorable to the development of rich animal life. While in the Arctic the trawl net nearly always brought to the surface many hundreds of animals, while in these southern waters we seldom picked up more than a couple every time; now and then not a single one. To our enormously great collections from the Arctic and from the sea between Behring's Sound and Behring's Island, therefore the dragging south of Yokohama have given us but very little. It may be proper here to mention that during this and the previous exploring expeditions which I have headed, the richest animal life was found in favorable places at the bottom of the Arctic Sea at the depth of between 20 and 100 feet in the very middle of Hinloopan Strait (… etc.). In these places, the annual average temperature of the sea is between +/-0 degrees and -2.7 degrees C. A temperature at or below the freezing point, therefore, seems to be more favorable to the development of a rich animal life at the bottom of the sea than a temperature of +15 degrees to +25 degrees; a highly remarkable fact, which has not yet, so far as I know, been duly set forth. It must, however, be observed that the invertebrates of the south are greater and more magnificent than those of the north, and the specific coast fauna which in the seas of the high north is entirely missing has here arrived at a high development. Our collections from the coast belt have not been so comprehensive as could have been desired. The Vega has mostly anchored near settled places and mouths of rivers, where no large number of sea animals could be expected to any greater depth, as the implements of the Vega were chiefly calculated for the comparatively shallow water of her course over the Siberian Sea, and not for the deep sea of Japan, where the necessary implements could not be obtained.

Vegetable Life In Japan
The Japanese food from the animal kingdom consists almost exclusively of fish, which abounds on the shores of Japan. Land and fresh water mussels, on the contrary, are so rare that even in the best situated places one may seek in vain for hours after a single shell. Even in the northern parts of Scandinavia one may gather more land mussels in a few hours than in as many days in Japan. Lieutenant Nordqvist, nevertheless, has by his diligence succeeded in forming a fine collection, which, no doubt, will prove a valuable contribution to the section of East Asiatic fauna.
The number of higher plant forms which are met with in the tropical and semi-tropical countries is so overwhelming that months must elapse before the naturalist can acquire a tolerably complete knowledge of the land plants even within a very limited district. Thus the time allotted to get our sojourn here was to scare to allow us to indulge in any prospects of enriching this science, especially as the plants of a higher order already have been carefully examined and investigated.
I think, however, that the view our botanists have taken of the glorious vegetation on Japan's plains and mountain slopes, on Labuan's meadows and marshes, in Hong Kong's and Singapore's luxurious gardens and nurseries, has enlarged their insight into the science to which they have devoted themselves more than any studies of books or collections of dried plants could ever have done. Although the plants of a higher order, which belong to this quarter of the world, may be very well known, there are still other plant groups of a lower order which furnish us with rich materials for further investigation. Among these are to be counted algae and lichens, of which very valuable collections will be brought home by Dr. Kjellman and Dr. Almqvist.

Relics And Literature
Never has a nation in a peaceful way so thoroughly changed as the Japanese during the last two decades.
That Japan which once was resembles very little that Japan which now is, and the peculiarities which are still left will, perhaps, in the next two decades have vanished.
The consequence is that masses of old weapons, bronzes, household furniture, &c (etc.), are at present sold in most of the cities at extremely low prices. As these relics of Japan's earlier history and culture are now scattered in every direction, they will soon become rare, and even in larger collections be considered veritable curiosities.
I have availed myself of this opportunity by buying ethnological articles, especially old bronzes and weapons. A still more valuable contribution to the knowledge of Japan's earlier history and culture is afforded by the very rich collection of Japanese books that I have succeeded in gathering dung my short stay in the country. In this I was assisted by a young, educated native, acquainted with the French language, whose name was Okuaki. He searched in my behalf the stores of innumerable booksellers in Yokohama and Tokio, and when no further additions could be made in those cities I sent him to Kioto, which for centuries had been the capital and the university city of Japan. In going to considerable expense for buying books I was guided by my desire to bring home from our visit to Japan something more valuable and lasting than collections of natural products gathered in a few weeks in a country already well known. Besides, it is just now the right time for making such a collection of books.
The old feudal estates have lately been confiscated, and the politically powerless court scattered since the Mikado has retaken the whole power and moved the seat of the government from Kioto to Yokohama.
The private collections of books as well as the old armories and weapons go now to the antiquity shops.
The natives who have betaken themselves to imitations of European literato despite the old books of their own country, I, therefore, feel assured that a collection like that I bring home with me in a very few years will become extremely rare and valuable.

A Rare Collection
The number of the works which constitute this collection is about one thousand, and the volumes amount to nearly six thousand, most of which are not larger than our books of 100 pages. As far as can be judged from the not very significant titles, they are divided into the following different branches:—

                                                  Number of Works
History                                                    176
Buddhism and Education                        161
Sinaitism                                                   38
Christianity (printed 1715)                         1
Manners and customs                               33
Plays                                                         13
Laws                                                           5
Political Science and kindred                   24
Poetry                                                     137
Archaeology, Heraldic, Ceremonies         27
Strategy                                                    41
Chess                                                          1
Numismatics                                               4
Dictionaries, Grammar                            18
Geography, Maps                                     70
Natural History                                         68
Medicine                                                    13
Arithmetic, Astronomy, Astrology             31
Agriculture                                                43
Art of designing                                         73
Horticulture                                               16
Bibliography                                                9
Miscellaneous                                            20
Total                                                      1,030

Most of them are illustrated by innumerable wood cuts, always peculiar, often of masterly execution.
The seventy-three books on the art of designing may become of real value, not only to the history of the art, but also to art industry. The poetical works of fiction give us an insight into the interior life of a former feudal state in a certain degree very much developed, but in its development quite independent of European influence. This may also be said of the works on the theatre, which often seem to be quite remarkable.
When we arrived at Japan the health of those on board was as good as possible. We escaped the sever cholera epidemic then raging; but, having advanced farther to the south, several of the crew were seized by more or less grievous disasters, probably owing to the sudden changes of climate and diet. The engineers and firemen especially have been frequently unable to work, and it has ben necessary to employ Chinamen in their places, At present, however, the sate of the health of all is satisfactory.
                        A.E. Nordenskjold.

- 30 - The End

Now… wasn't that the most brilliant piece of writing on Japan - especially the concerns about Japan losing its identity in its rush to embrace all things western?

The writer had fears that by the dawn of the 20th century that Japan would essentially have traded its identity for that of the European.

Even in 2014, they haven't, though, of course, in many ways they have. Which is why I continue to write this blog and can have a valid view of things even 20 years removed.

The writer fears when he notes that Japanese are selling off all of their Japanese fashions and furnishings and shunning their long-standing way of life for a more dapper western one.

Of course, in my opinion, dapper is in the eye of the beholder.

I also love that the writer/scientist seems to have come to the correlation that the colder the waters, the more sea life one should be expected to find, and only laments the fact that they didn't have deep enough nets to get down into the deeper and colder aspects of the Sea of Japan to prove that point. 

Now… I'm no marine biologist, but since the waters had been roiled around a bit by various typhoons, it might be plausible that the waters had been more or less vacated by some of the marine life.

As well… perhaps in September or October the areas around the waters of Japan were no longer fertile, as many species of fish tend to migrate around the oceans…

Or perhaps in that time of the year it had already been fished out by the Japanese fishermen… or perhaps when they asked the Japanese fishermen where to go the Japanese fishermen could have sent them to 'dead zones' to protect their own happy fishing grounds. This is less likely, but I toss the idea out nonetheless.

As an aside, the New York Herald had sponsored the George W. Delong arctic expedition beginning in 1879, but by 1881, after this article was published, it became known that this expediton via the boat the USS Jeannette with a plan to find a quick way to the North Pole via the Bering Strait - was a failure, with the boat being crushed by ice and some 19 dead.

I will present a bit more about the whole adventure in Japan in an account shortly.

Andrew Joseph

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