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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Early Meiji Japan's Opening To Foreign Scientific Contact

Whoops... I accidentally published this a day early...  Oh well... I think I have it edited to some sort of readable shape now... 

I suppose I just should have called this one "How Swede It Is" because it's about how Japan's Tokyo Geographical Society, back 1879 made with the niceties towards the Swedish Vega Expedition led by the Finnish scientist Dr. Nordenskiöld.

I'm not going to claim to have written this... in fact, I found it in a blog created by Finland's Embassy in Japan. I think. Whatever. The website is HERE

It's a fairly dry report on the Arctic exploration vessel the SS Vega that was coming back home after discovering the European northwest passage and doing some fantastic scientific research on sea life in the area.

Warm welcome by The Tokyo Geographical Society In Japan

Tokyo Geographical Society had in March 1879 been established under the presidency of Prince Kitashirakawa. The society listed members from the high strata of early Meiji society: the Imperial Family, peers, high-ranking officials, politicians, scholars and merchants.

The German Minister von Eisendecker, who was the president of the Deutsche Asiatische Gesellschaft, contacted Tokyo Geographical Society on August 25 and informed about the successful journey of the Nordenskiöld expedition through the Northeast Passage and expected arrival of S.S. Vega in Japan in a few days. He asked if the Society could welcome Dr. Nordenskiöld and his expedition under auspices of the three societies, namely the Tokyo Geographical Society, British Asiatic Society as well as the Deutsche Asiatische Gesellschaft. On September 2, on the day when S.S. Vega anchored in Yokohama, the Society accepted the request. The opportunity to welcome a prominent foreign scientist contributed to the general recognition of a new society in Japan and encouraged it to open contacts with foreign scholarly communities, at the time when those contacts still were limited - we may remember that Japan's more than two centuries long isolation had ended only two decades before Nordenkiöld's arrival.

A welcome reception took place on September 15, 1879 at Kobu-Daigakko, the predecessor of the Faculty of Technology of Tokyo Imperial University. It was an exceptionally grand ceremony at that time with over 130 guests including the presence of Prince Kitashirakawa, Prince Higashifushimi, as well as the American, Russian and British ministers. A special silver medallion was awarded to Nordenskiöld as a token of the Society's appreciation. In his return speech Dr. Nordenskiöld encouraged Prince Kitashirakawa, the President of the Society, to undertake a voyage along the Northwest Route from East Asia to Europe by Japanese people under the auspices of the Society and other expeditions to the Arctic. On September 17, Nordenskiöld was received by the Meiji Emperor.

While S.S. Vega stayed in Yokohama, a collection of Japanese literature available at that time, altogether over 1,000 titles or about 7.000 volumes, was purchased. As Nordenskiöld himself did not understand Japanese he asked a Dutch medicine producer A.J.C. Geertzes to help him purchase Japanese books. Geertzes' assistant, Masashi Okuchi, gathered the books from Yokohama and Tokyo bookstores.

According to Miyahiko Miki, the books are a good random selection of the book supply at that time;
perhaps because of lack of time no particular effort seems to have been made to built up a consistent collection. Now the collection is preserved at the Royal Swedish Library in Stockholm.

On October 11 S.S. Vega left Yokohama and sailed to Kobe, which was reached on the 13th, and from where the expedition visited Kyoto and Lake Biwa. Kobe was left behind on the 18th. The expedition arrived on 21 October in Nagasaki, where Deshima was visited. Finally S.S. Vega left Nagasaki on 27 October and sailed via the Southern Route through Suez Canal. Stops were made in Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Naples, Rome, Lisbon, London and Copenhagen before the expedition reached Stockholm on 24 April 1880.

While still on his way to Europe, Nordenskiöld started editing his diary of the trip. Over 800 pages in all, it appeared in two volumes in 1880-81 under the title Vegas fard kring Asien och Europa. Its English version appeared under the title The Voyage of the Vega Round Asia and Europe and nine other language versions appeared more or less simultaneously, including the translation into Finnish in 1881-1883.

It took, however, a century before it appeared in Japanese in 1988.

Andrew Joseph

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