Book Review: "Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns" by Isaac Titsingh

Accounts of foreign lands are interesting both because of what they reveal about the country but also because of what they reveal about the writer. One of the dangers of this genre is that it can become all too focused on the author and his 'culture shock' as he bumbles into yet another inscrutable foreign custom.

Luckily, this is not a problem in this collection of writings by Isaac Titsingh, reissued after a gap of 180 years and heavily annotated by Timon Screech. Titsingh was a level-headed Dutch businessman placed in charge of the Dutch trading station at Nagasaki's Dejima from 1779 to 1784. His success depended on looking beyond confusing cultural surfaces to understand the economic and political realities that underpinned Edo-period society.

Titsingh's account is also remarkable in that he tries to remove the authorial 'I' from the narrative. In the historical part of the book, Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns, rather than digesting or interpreting the island empire's history, Titsingh simply uses translations of documents, allowing an authentic Japanese voice to speak to the West for the first time. Although very laudable in 1822 when Titsingh's book was first published, all the historical information has subsequently been superseded by writers with a more comprehensive understanding of Japanese history and language skills superior to Titsingh, who suspiciously claimed to have 'mastered' the Japanese language in a mere two years.

Titsingh's original concept of using mainly Japanese voices has not been followed by the present book's editor Timon Screech, a Reader in the history of Japanese art at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. In addition, to a detailed 74-page introduction that fills in the detailed background to Titsingh and the Japan of his time, Screech also includes other documents by Titsingh, including his essays on Japan and his 'Secret Diary,' a first-person narrative business report meant for the eyes of his superiors in the Dutch East India Company. This details his day–to–day battle of wits with unreliable translators, capricious governors, and even the authorities in distant Edo.

Titsingh's ace in business negotiations was that the Japanese clearly needed the Dutch at Dejima more than vice versa. While the Japanese imported spices from the Dutch East Indies, wool, and crystal glasses, their main export in return was copper that was becoming increasingly unprofitable for the Dutch due to cheaper sources elsewhere. When Dutch ships didn't visit Nagasaki in 1782 – partly due to war with Great Britain – Titsingh mentions that there was "incessant praying for three days in temples, with the promise of large rewards if the prayers were answered." The other side of this economic downturn was that the Governor of Nagasaki, when he visited Edo Castle, could only be restrained "with the greatest difficulty" from "cutting open his belly," because the loss of trade and the threat of war spreading had led to the stockpiling of rice and a famine.

Rather than being shocked by the extremes of Edo-period culture, like seppuku (ritual suicide), Titsingh remains blasé. In his essay The character of the Japanese People he describes it as one might describe playing shogi (Japanese chess):

"As with us, the graceful performance of certain bodily exercises is considered an accomplishment essential to a liberal education, so among them it is indispensably necessary for all those who by their birth or rank aspire to dignities, to understand the art of ripping themselves up like gentleman."

Titsingh's narrative is useful in that he never sees Japan as a monolithic and static society where everybody thought the same way. Instead, he is constantly aware of the competing groups and interests that make up any complex society, in particular drawing a distinction between those who favored more ties with the outside world and those who didn't, described as "frogs in a well" because of their limited horizons. The widely traveled Titsingh was quite the opposite.

22nd December, 2006

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