Oct 23, 2011

"The Beginning of Rangaku (蘭学事始)"

I've read the book "The Beginning of Ranagaku (蘭学事始)" by Genpaku Sugita.

Genpaku Sugita (1733 - 1817) was a Western medicine doctor and famous for the translation of "Kaitai Shinsho (解体新書)". "Kaitai Shinsho" means "the New Book of Anatomy".

In the Edo era (1603 - 1868) the Edo government strictly restricted trade with foreign countries and this policy was called "Sakoku (鎖国)", seclusion. Japan traded only with China and the Netherlands under the control of the Edo government. They were allowed to visit only Nagasaki, which is the East end of Japan, and go around just in "Dejima (出島)", a small island in the port of Nagasaki.

At that time there were three schools, "Kangaku (漢学)", "Kokugaku (国学)", and "Rangaku (蘭学)" in Japan. "Kangaku (漢学)" was a study of classic Chinese philosophy, mainly Confucian. It was the main school and "Samurai (worrior)" class should learn "Kangaku (漢学)".

"Kokugaku (国学)" means "the National study". In the middle of the Edo era "nationalism" and "nationalists" had appeared. They instead that Japanese culture were contaminated by "Kangaku (漢学)" and studied pure old Japanese history and culture before "Kangaku (漢学)" arrived at Japan.

If I translate "Rangaku (蘭学)" directly, it means "the study of Dutch". As I mentioned in the Edo era Japan trade only with Netherlands among Western countries, and Japanese people could study Western culture and sciences only through the books written in Dutch, so study of them were called "Rangaku (蘭学)".

The author of the book "The Beginning of Rangaku (蘭学)", Genpaku Sugita, was one of the latest scholars of "Rangaku (蘭学)". He had been a Chinese medicine doctor. He happened to get the book about Anatomy written in Dutch, "Ontleedkundige Tafelen", which he called this book "ターヘル・アナトミア". Of course he couldn't read Dutch at all but in this book there were many anatomy charts.

At that time it was rare that a human body was dissected and Japanese doctors didn't have the precise knowledge of the internal human body. He had a chance to see a dissection of a condemned criminal and found the Dutch book about Anatomy was quite precise. He decided to translate this book into Japanese and use it to improve Japanese medicine. He got some friends together and began to try the translation.

But the situation was really severe. They didn't almost know Dutch language at all and had no teacher, no dictionary and of course no the internet. Genpaku Sugita wrote in "The Beginning of Rangaku (蘭学)" as follows.


At first we were looking at this "Ontleedkundige Tafelen" and we didn't know what we should do as if we were boarding a ship without a rudder in the big ocean. …. We remembered a few words but we couldn't understand the full sentences at all. For example we couldn't understand the sentence "eyebrows are hair above eyes" for a long day in spring, and we were thinking until evening looking at each other. At the end we couldn't understand just one sentence. In the other day we found the word "フルへッヘンド" on the nose in an anatomy chart and we discussed about the word, but we couldn't get any conclusion.

At the end they had translated this book.


As we had studied for three years, we became able to understand this book step by step. We resolved our old mistakes and enjoy understanding it as if we ate sugarcane and taste its sweetness. We looking forward to the meeting since the night before and we felt like children going to a festival.

Methods and Materials are important, but motivation and friends are far more important.

Let's enjoy learning languages together!


  1. Dear Yagian,
    The story that you tell here is also closely link to something that is still regarded as very important in Japanese academia: the translation of foreign books to Japanese language. Very interesting post.

  2. Thank you for your interesting comment as usual.

    Japanese intellectuals, who can speak foreign languages such as English, French, German, and classic Chinese, have translated foreign books and translation has been thought to be as their mission.