The Japanese Character and its Peculiarity – A Study of Carl Peter Thunberg’s Travel Account


  • Leonie Kijewski



Japan, with its increasing isolation in the 1630s – cumulating in the ban of all foreigners apart from Chinese and Dutch traders and restricting Dutch traders to the small artificial island Deshima in 1641 – only few foreigners received permission to enter the country (Rietbergen, 2003, p. 170). Since their travels were based on monetary and rarely on scientific interests, only a small number of travel accounts about Japan were published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Rietbergen, 2004, p. 56). When the Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) published his Resa uti Europa, Africa, Asia, förrättad åren 1770 – 1779 from 1788 onwards, it were around fifty years that no new narratives on Japan had been published in Europe.Thus, it is of no surprise that his travel account was widely read in Europe. Thunberg’s work was translated once into English and Japanese, twice into French and twice into German (Screech, 2005, pp. 61-62). Despite aiming for a neutral report about the Japanese society, Thunberg provides a personal account about the Japanese that is remarkably positive and entails only few negative comments (e.g. too strict obedience to rules). This paper answers the question in how far and in what way Thunberg sets the Japanese culture and society apart from the European one. Moreover, possible reasons for this positive account are given. This chapter works with the English translation by Charles Hopton of 1793-95, which was reedited in 2005 by Timon Screech. The page numbers that are given in this chapter are derived from the 2005 edition. The German original translation by Kurt Sprengel from 1792 can be found in Maastricht Jesuit collection and is also referred to in this chapter.


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