Japan’s History of “Dutch Studies”

I like digging around in Japanese history to find interesting little tidbits. In 1853, Admiral Matthew Perry sailed his “black ships” into the harbor at Edo (modern day Tokyo) on a mission to force Japan to ends its “closed country” policy and trade with the U.S. (Interesting aside: his main goal was to get Japan to open its ports to American whaling vessels, which were killing whales by the hundreds throughout the Pacific, quite a turnaround from today.) Prior to Perry’s visit, all foreign contact with Japan had been limited to the fan-shaped artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki, and it was death for any foreigner to land in Japan or for any Japanese to leave. The idea was to lock out all external influence, probably a good idea considering the penchant the world powers of the day had shown for colonizing countries and adding them to their empires, and the policy certainly was successful in preserving Japan’s unique culture. Only the Dutch were allowed any contact with the Japanese, and they enjoyed such a close relationship with Japan for two centuries that the general word for studying Western technology and medicine during the Edo Period was Rangaku (lit. “Dutch studies”). When Napoleon annexed the Netherlands from 1810 to 1813, making the country a province of France, Dejima was the only place in the world where the Dutch flag flew.

 

The old word for the study of Western medicine and technology was Rangaku, lit. “Dutch studies”

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