Tachibana Nankei

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  • Born: 1753/4/21
  • Died: 1805/4/10
  • Titles: Iwami-no-suke
  • Other Names: 宮川春暉 (Miyagawa Haruteru; Haruakira)
  • Japanese: 南谿 (Tachibana Nankei)

Tachibana Nankei was a Rangaku scholar and physician, known for his travel writings.

Early Life

He was born into the Miyagawa clan, a samurai family based in Ise province, which took their name from land granted to them by Sasaki Kyôgoku (1306-1373); the family, under Miyagawa Yasumoto, had moved to Ise in the fifth generation before Nankei's time. Originally known as Miyagawa Haruakira, Nankei was the fifth and youngest son of Miyagawa Yasunaga, also known as Kenbee, a samurai in the service of Hisai han. He had one older sister and four older brothers, the eldest of whom, Kanenosuke, died young; the second son, Yasukage, thus became the heir to the family.

Nankei (Haruakira), at age seven or eight, listened to his father's explanations of the writings of Mencius, and began studying the Analects of Confucius soon afterwards, setting his sights on becoming a scholar. At age nine, he began studying under a Confucian scholar in service to the domain, by the name of Sano Yûzan. Nankei's father died on 1766/8/6, when Nankei was 14.

Roughly five years later, at age 19, Nankei moved to Kyoto to study medicine. After studying under Kagawa Shûan and Yoshimasu Tôdô for a time, he remained in Kyoto (moving to Fushimi and Osaka for brief spells, but then returning to Kyoto) and took on students of his own. His mother came to Kyoto and lived with him for a time, but died on 1781/7/17.

Nankei married a daughter of a haikai poet around 1778, taking her surname, Tachibana; around the same time, he adopted the pseudonym Nankei.


Journey to the West

In 1782/4, at the age of 30, he left Kyoto for the western provinces and Kyushu along with his student Bunzô, traveling along the San'yôdô and returning the following summer via Shikoku.

On his journey west, he traveled through Osaka, Hyôgo, and Akashi, then took the Harima Road (Harima-ji) briefly, stopping to see the pines at Sone, passing through Himeji han, and eventually reaching Akô han. In Osafune (Bizen province), he stopped to visit a swordsmith. He then passed through Bitchû and Bingo provinces, offering medical care from time to time to peasants he met along the way. After passing through Hiroshima (Aki province) and Suô province, he made his way through Nagato han, and crossed over to Kyushu, reaching Kokura. From there, he made his way to Hakata and Fukuoka, where he met with Kamei Nanmei, among other prominent scholars and poets. Nankei then traveled to Kurume, Saga, and Ureshino, the latter known for its hot springs, and then, after passing through Ômura, he took a ship to Nagae.

Nankei arrived in Nagasaki around 6/20, and stayed there for more than twenty days. During his time there, he met with Isaac Titsingh and other agents of the Dutch East India Company, as well as with a number of Chinese traders, and Japanese Rangaku scholars such as Yoshio Kôsaku. Nankei marveled at Dutch technologies, especially optics (microscrope, telescope, periscope, etc.) and maps, and wrote that the Chinese differed from Japanese only in dress, language, and behavior; in other words, he recognized no ethnic or racial difference between the people of China and Japan. His treatments of ethnic/racial difference were tied into theories about the influence of geography and climate upon temperament. Since China and Japan are geographically and climatically quite similar, he described no ethnic difference between the two peoples; however, he described Dutchmen as "cold" (i.e. distant and reserved), and Ryukyuans as "too warm in personality to pass for [Japanese], although they resemble the Japanese physically,"[1] the result, in his thinking, it would seem, of their origins in climatically cold and warm places, respectively.

Leaving Nagasaki, he traveled to Shimabara castle and to Amakusa, and on the last day of the 7th month, recorded seeing the famed shiranui fires out over the Ariake Sea (aka Yatsushiro Sea). Commenting also on the widespread famine being suffered in Kyushu at the time, he entered the territory of Satsuma han on 8/15, remaining there until the New Year. While there, he visited various sites in Satsuma and Ôsumi provinces, including Yamakawa, Sakurajima, and Kajiki, where one of Satsuma's many sub-castles was located. Normally, it would have been quite difficult for an outsider to gain entry into Satsuma, due to the strict policies of the domain's government, but Nankei, along with his contemporary Furukawa Koshôken and a few other prominent scholar-travelers, were fortunate at this time, as Shimazu Shigehide, lord of Satsuma from 1755 to 1787, eased up considerably on these policies, opening up the domain to travelers and merchants to a greater extent. Given the unfamiliar, and normally inaccessible, nature of this region, Nankei wrote particularly extensively about these two provinces in his Saiyûki, the travelogue of this journey which he would later publish in 1795. He happened to arrive in Kagoshima at the time of a series of celebrations for the betrothal of Shigehide's daughter Shigehime to the shogunal heir, Tokugawa Ienari; two Ryukyuan royal princes, Prince Urasoe and Prince Nakagusuku, were also present for the celebrations, formally offering congratulations on behalf of their king, and so Nankei was able to witness much Satsuma & Ryukyuan ritual spectacle. Nankei was also able to meet with a number of Ryukyuans resident in the city, including two bearing the titles Gusukuma ueekata and Kochinda peechin, sharing drinks and songs with them, and interviewing them about Ryûkyû, and about their experiences in China.[2]

In the 2nd month, 1783, Nankei left Kagoshima to begin the journey home. After a lengthy journey, including a stop in Hitoyoshi, where he practiced medicine for 15 days, he arrived back in Kyoto, via Shikoku, in the summer.


Following his return, on 1783/6/25, he and a group of scholars including Koishi Genshun took part in the dissection of a human body. He is also known to have constructed an electric dynamo, as Hiraga Gennai had also done.

Journey to the East

Two years later, in 1785/9, Nankei left for the east (Tôhoku), returning once again a summer after his departure, this time via the Sea of Japan coast. Having praised the spread of education (especially Confucian schools) into western Japan in his writings from that trip, he strongly criticized the relative lack of education he discovered in eastern Japan, including the relatively low levels of literacy compared to more central areas of Japan. Moving beyond Tôhoku into Ainu lands in Ezo, he spoke of the inferiority of the Ainu lifestyle, and unlike some other major travelers/writers of his time, advocated for the incorporation more fully of the Ainu into the Japanese cultural sphere.

After several experiences getting lost, or facing difficulties due to weather along with his traveling companion Yôken, Nankei composed a series of five rules for himself as a traveler: Do not ford a river on foot, do not eat strange foods, do not travel by night, do not travel by sea, and do not associate with low-class women.


Nankei's Saiyûki ("Journey to the West") and Tôyûki ("Journey to the East"), accounts of the two journeys, were both published, in five volumes each, in 1795, the former in the 3rd month, and the latter in the 8th month. Unlike many other prominent scholar travelers of his time, who wrote for more private purposes, Nankei wrote with the intention of publishing. Several artists contributed to the illustrations of the Tôyûki, chief among them Maruyama Ôkyo, head of the Maruyama school, his student Maruyama Ôzui, and the Eccentric painter Nagasawa Rosetsu.

Nankei had by this time gained some prominence; he was appointed an Imperial physician in 1786/12, was granted the court rank of Lower Senior Seventh Rank 正七位下 in 1787/2, and was named Iwami-no-suke the following month (1787/3). In the 11th month of that same year, he was also invited to Emperor Kôkaku's investiture ceremony. In addition to writing numerous books on medicine, Nankei also compiled a volume on Chinese poetry, and one on Japanese poetry. In 1796, he was called to official service, and took the tonsure shortly afterwards, continuing to write and to study medicine. Sequels to his Tôyûki and Saiyûki were published in 1797/1 and 1798/6 respectively. His travel writings are organized more thematically, rather than in a geographically chronological order. He does not focus on the narrative of his own travels so much as on the surprising and strange things he saw or found, and on ruminations about them. Despite being a physician and herbalist, he shows far less skepticism, or rational empiricism, than certain other travel writers (e.g. Furukawa Koshôken) when presented with local legends and other fantastic stories.

He was promoted to the court rank Lower Junior Sixth Rank 従六位下 in 1794. In 1788, Nankei lost his house in the Great Tenmei Fire, which destroyed much of Kyoto. As a result, he moved briefly to Fushimi, and during that time, returned to his hometown in Hisai han for the first time in eighteen years. He returned to Kyoto in 1790, having had a new house built, but maintained his second home in Fushimi.

He had a son the following year, naming him Harutoku (the child's other names included Hôkei and Tôsen). This was not his first child; Nankei already had at least one daughter by this time.

Nankei took the tonsure on 1796/5/11, adopting the Buddhist name Baisen, turning to devoting more time to practicing, and writing about, medicine. The following year, he traveled briefly in southern Kii province.

Nankei fell ill and retired to Fushimi in 1799, at the age 47. He died on 1805/4/10, and is buried at Konkaikômyô-ji in eastern Kyoto; a number of his writings were published posthumously.


  • "Tachibana Nankei." Nihon jinmei daijiten 日本人名大辞典. Kodansha, 2009.
  • Bolitho, Harold. "Travelers' Tales: Three 18th Century Travel Journals." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 50:2 (1990). pp485-504.
  • Munemasa Isoo 宗政五十緒, “Tachibana Nankei ‘Saiyūki’ to Edo kōki no kikō bungaku” 橘南谿『西遊記』と江戸後期の紀行文学, in Shin-Nihon koten bungaku taikei 新日本古典文学大系, vol. 98, (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1991), 437-459.
  • Plutschow, Herbert. A Reader in Edo Period Travel. Global Oriental, 2006. pp75-88.
  • Yonemoto, Marcia. Mapping Early Modern Japan. University of California Press, 2003. pp90-97.
  1. Yonemoto. p93.
  2. Maehira Fusaaki, Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken 琉球使節の異国体験, Kokusai kôryû 国際交流 59 (1992), 67.; Tachibana Nankei 橘南谿, Saiyūki 西遊記, in Shin-Nihon koten bungaku taikei 新日本古典文学大系, vol. 98, (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1991), 245-254.