Nishikawa Joken

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  • Born: 1648
  • Died: 1724
  • Other Names: 忠英 (Tadahide)
  • Japanese: 西川 如見 (Nishikawa Joken)

Nishikawa Joken was a prominent scholar of the 17th and early 18th centuries, known for his writings on tengaku (celestial sciences) and on the peoples of the world. Joken is regarded as one of the earliest Japanese scholars to engage with and promote European observational approaches to astronomy. In addition to his work on astronomical subjects, Joken also made efforts to advance and spread knowledge on geography and the peoples of the world, "Heaven, Earth, and Man" (J: Tenchijin) being a classical conception of the three chief categories of knowledge. While much of his work was based closely on expertise with Chinese sources, Joken generally wrote in a relatively accessible manner, and without extensive direct quotes from classical Chinese sources.

Joken was born into a townsman (chônin) family in Nagasaki. He is believed to have studied astronomy under Kobayashi Kentei (1601-1684), and other Confucian studies with Nanbu Sôju (1637-1688).

Joken published one of his most famous works on peoples and places of the world, Ka'i tsûshô kô, in 1695. This original version was in two volumes, and described the lands of China, Korea, Ryukyu, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and Europe, and their peoples. In 1709, Joken published an expanded version, Zôho ka'i tsûshô kô, covering the same subjects in five volumes.

In 1719, the shogunate summoned Joken to Edo to consult him on astronomical matters. The following year, Nagasaki-based Chinese-language interpreter Ro Sôsetsu was also summoned to Edo and the two began to work together. After his return to Nagasaki, Joken was asked to produce copies of his writings on astronomy and geography for presentation to the shogun.

Though Joken was never officially named to the position of tenmongata (astronomy/calendrics official for the Tokugawa shogunate), his son Nishikawa Seikyû (1693-1756) later was. Seikyû is not known to have produced much original works, but edited or recompiled a number of Joken's works, including Nagasaki yawa gusa (1731), a text on Nagasaki, its history, and its connections with the Portuguese and the Dutch. Joken's daughter, meanwhile, married a son of Chinese interpreter Sakaki Soken (d. 1740), who had written the preface to several of Joken's books.

Selected List of Works

  • Ka'i tsûshô kô ("Thoughts on Commerce among the Civilized and Barbarians," 1695)
  • Zôho ka'i tsûshô kô (1709)
  • Chônin bukuro (1718, a work explaining the moral duties and justified place of townspeople in society)
  • Nagasaki yawa gusa (1720, "Draft on Evening Conversations from Nagasaki")
  • Nihon suido kô (1720, "Thoughts on Japanese Land")
  • Ryôiki jinsû kô (1720, "Thoughts on Population in the Two Regions")
  • Suido kaiben (1720, "Explanation of Water and Land")
  • Shijûnikoku jinbutsu zu (1720, "Illustrations of Peoples of 42 Lands")
  • Hyakushô bukuro (1731, a work explaining the moral duties and justified place of villagers in society)
  • Gusho rekishô zokkai ("Explanations in Vernacular Language of Calendrical Matters in the Book of Yu")
  • Kaii bendan ("Discussions of Strange Things")
  • Kaii ruisan (survives only in one manuscript copy; may have been the basis for the published Kaii bendan)
  • Ryôgi shûsetsu ("Collected Theories on Two Models")
  • Shichiyô usen benron (a work on whether the visible planets, sun, and moon, move in the same direction as the Heavens, or in the opposite direction)
  • Tenjin gogyô kai ("Explanation of Heaven and Man and the Five Elements")
  • Tenmon giron ("On the Celestial Signs")


  • Daniel Said Monteiro, "Celestial Sciences in the Works of Nishikawa Joken (1648-1724)," Historia Scientarium 29-1 (2019), 112-135.