The Closed Island of Japan

KAEMPFER, Engelbert. The history of Japan (London, 1728)

Provenance: Thomas Phillips, 1837


In 1692, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), a physician with the Dutch East India Company, smuggled out of Japan the first systematic collection of Japanese materials to be seen in Europe. Kaempfer's collection became the basis of the West's earliest scientific account of the closed island empire.

Sir Hans Sloane, a founder of the British Museum, purchased Kaempfer’s library and papers and arranged for his manuscripts to be published in English. This was undertaken at Sloane's expense by his librarian, a Swiss doctor called Johann Caspar Scheuchzer (1702-29).The publication of the History of Japan in 1727 immortalised Kaempfer as 'the first interpreter of Japan'.

It contains descriptions of acupuncture, the use of opium and cannabis and a systematic description of tea, as well as extensive botanical observations and observations of coscial, religious and cultural life. It was praised by Linnaeus, who adopted Kaempfer's nomenclature. Luis Borges was fascinated by Kaempfer’s work and frequently referred to it in his fiction. Picart and Bernard used the English edition in their great survey of religion. The French edition did not appear until a year later.