From SamuraiWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search
  • Japanese: 蘭学 (rangaku)

Rangaku, or "Dutch Studies," was an Edo period intellectual movement centered on the study of Dutch (and by extension, Western) science, technology, philosophy, history, art, and language, based primarily on Dutch books imported via Nagasaki. Medicine (including botany, pharmacology, anatomy, etc.) and astronomy (including calendrics) were the two strongest fields of study within Rangaku, in part because of lingering concerns and suspicions regarding the potentially dangerous, divisive, or corrupting influence of European philosophy or religion; however, such humanities and social science subjects - apart from Christianity - did eventually filter into Japan. Overall, Rangaku was not a singular, unified field of study centered on a coherent philosophy or worldview, but rather a combination of various scattered sources and types of information, simply acquired and considered as chance had it.

Trade with the Dutch was responsible for the introduction of telescopes, microscopes, clocks, and a number of other technologies into Japan, which were vital to the progress of "Dutch Studies"; but eyeglasses, peeping-boxes and other forms of entertaining optics, and the like spread quite widely, having social/cultural impacts far beyond the somewhat limited scope of the fields of elite scholarship.

Many rangaku scholars also dabbled, or were expert, in other fields, including Confucian studies or kangaku, herbal medicine (honzôgaku), and painting. The study of Dutch painting and illustration had profound impacts upon the use of perspective, shading/modeling, light & shadow, and other techniques across many styles or genres of Japanese painting and prints, and also inspired a new movement of artists experimenting in oil painting and copperplate printing, which came to be known as Ranga ("Dutch pictures"). Many rangaku figures also wrote books on geography, cultures or customs, or peoples of the world, as well as fiction, and many engaged in literati social circles and pursuits as well.


In 1720, the shogunate loosened its restrictions on the import of Dutch books, giving a great boost to the nascent field of study.

Tamura Chinsui (aka Gen'yû) was among those who pioneered the botany / pharmacology side of rangaku. In 1757, he arranged an exhibit of botanical samples at the Yushima Seidô in Edo. His student Hiraga Gennai ran a concurrent symposium on herbal medicines, and both were so successful that they came to be repeated as annual affairs. These are sometimes cited as a notable precursor in the history of Japanese museums.[1]

Gennai went on to become a prolific writer on a variety of subjects, and is today regarded one of the most prominent or significant early rangaku scholars. His work includes experiments with basic electric generators & batteries, sheep husbandry, mining, asbestos, ceramics, embossed paper, and herbal medicine.

A number of rangaku scholars managed to arrange to witness the dissection of executed criminals, and some published works based on the experience. Seeing that dissected Japanese bodies did not match with descriptions in Chinese texts, many concluded that Chinese and Japanese anatomy must be (or might be) different. But, Sugita Genpaku and Maeno Ryôtaku, after observing a dissection in 1771 with copies of the Dutch anatomy book Ontleedkundige Tafelen[2] on hand, decided that all human anatomy was alike, and that the Dutch books were simply more accurate, more correct, than the Chinese ones. Incensed by this discovery, they set to translating the Dutch text. Three years later, in 1774, with the help of Nakagawa Jun'an, Katsuragawa Hoshû, and several others, they completed the translation and publication of Kaitai shinsho ("New Book of Anatomy"), the first European anatomy book to be widely published & circulated in Japanese translation.[3]

The first unsuppressed, uncensored, book containing Dutch to be widely published in Japan was the Rangaku kaitei, a guide to Dutch language compiled by Ôtsuki Gentaku in 1788.

Meanwhile, many rangaku scholars sought interactions with Nagasaki-based officials, especially Dutch-language interpreters such as Yoshio Kôsaku. Some rangaku scholars, such as Shiba Kôkan, went so far as to disguise themselves as a courtesan of the Maruyama district in order to gain access to Dejima, and thus more directly to Dutch individuals and objects.

In addition to pioneering numerous developments in ranga (oil painting, copperplate engraving), involved himself in a number of other rangaku projects, including producing works on astronomy. He painted out a copy of a Dutch illustration of the moon's surface, in some considerable degree of detail, and also produced a number of books on astronomy, physics, and other subjects. Nishikawa Joken, a popular writer known for his books of "peoples of the world," among other subjects, also produced works on astronomy, while gesaku author Morishima Chûryô, brother of rangaku scholar Katsuragawa Hoshû and an active rangaku scholar in his own right, produced a Dutch-Japanese dictionary and a work on Dutch people, culture, and history, alongside a number of humorous and fictional sharebon and kibyôshi.

Despite strong support and encouragement from the shogunate at times, Rangaku also attracted considerable pushback, suspicion, and critique from Confucian scholars and other corners. Many felt that allowing too much Western influence in, adopting too much Western philosophy or science, or allowing Western things to become too popular, ran much the same risks as allowing Christianity in, at the beginning of the Edo period. They cited both practical concerns of the potential for political disloyalty or divisiveness, and suspicion of the potentially violent intentions of the Westerners, and also cultural or philosophical concerns regarding the threat posed to the rightful dominance of ancient Chinese wisdom.

By the 1830s, concerns grew, too, specifically about Rangaku scholars beginning to dabble in discussions of coastal defense policy, matters of national maritime defense, and so forth. Hayashi Shihei had already been arrested, and printing blocks for his work Kaikoku Heidan ("Military Discussion of a Maritime Country") destroyed, in 1792, and Philipp Franz von Siebold expelled from the country in 1829 for possession of maps which were considered state secrets. This culminated in a series of raids in 1839 known as Bansha no goku, in which a number of rangaku scholars, including Watanabe Kazan and Takano Chôei, were arrested.

Prior to his expulsion, Siebold had a significant positive impact upon Rangaku, meeting with a number of Rangaku scholars and contributing in various ways to providing them with knowledge, information, and materials. Expelled in 1829, he eventually returned, in 1859-1862, once the maritime restrictions policies of the 1630s were lifted. In the intervening time, his daughter Kusumoto Oine opened a gynecology clinic in Nagasaki; she later became the first woman in Japan to be officially licensed as a doctor of (Western/modern) medicine.[4]

In the last two decades or so of the Edo period, and into the Meiji period, "Western Studies" of various sorts became far more widespread, with many schools and academies being opened, and many of the most prominent and influential figures of the time - from Fukuzawa Yukichi and Katsu Kaishû to Nomura Fumio and Fukuchi Gen'ichirô - studying Western Studies to at least some extent. It becomes difficult, as a result, to determine whether to label all of this as "Rangaku," or to distinguish it apart from the earlier movement. The Juntendô medical school of the Satô family in Shimousa province, established in 1843, for example, became a major center of the study and practice of Western medicine at a time when this was no longer novel or niche in Japan, and no longer purely an amateur intellectual pursuit.

Selected List of Rangaku Scholars


  1. John Whitney Hall, Tanuma Okitsugu (1719-1788): Forerunner of Modern Japan, Harvard University Press (1955), 78, 95.
  2. A Dutch translation of the German Anatomische Tabellen by Johann Adam Kulm, or Kulmus.
  3. David Lu, Japan: A Documentary History, ME Sharpe (1997), 263-266.
  4. Lambourne, Lionel. Japonisme: Cultural Crossings Between Japan and the West. London: Phaidon, 2005, 24.

See Also