A Curious Man

Rokumotsu shinshi [or] Rokubutsu shinshi [New Record of Six Things].

Twelve full-page woodcuts. 35; 35 folding leaves. Two vols. 8vo, orig. wrappers (a little tired & worn), orig. block-printed title-labels on upper covers, new stitching. Osaka: Kenkado, 1786.

First edition of this very uncommon and attractive illustrated book on six remarkable medical substances of the West, written by Gentaku Otsuki (1757-1827), Rangaku (Dutch Studies) scholar, who studied Dutch medicine under Gempaku Sugita and learned Dutch from Ryotaku Maeno. This book, which launched Otsuki’s career in earnest, was published by the prosperous Osaka sake distiller Kenkado (1736-1802), a book collector who formed an important natural history collection.

Shiba Kokan (1747-1818), famous for his Western-influenced illustrations (see Hillier, The Art of the Japanese Book, pp. 511-17), illustrated this handsome work. His depictions are clearly derived from Western natural history books.

In the present text, Otsuki writes about unusual Western natural history items used as medicines, as a way of emphasizing that there was much to be known about the world outside of Japan. Otsuki argues that European medical knowledge was essential to Japan’s future well-being and should be considered authoritative. This work describes “unicorns,” saffron, nutmeg, “mumia,” agarikon, and “mermaids.” Otsuki cites and translates from the Western books from which he learned of these things (including Dutch editions of Jonston, Johann Anderson on Greenland, Dodoens, Dioscorides, Chomel, François Valentyn, Johann Jacob Hübner, Johann Jacob Woyt, and Egbert Buys).

“Unicorn” horns had long been imported into Japan by the Dutch for use in medicines. But here Otsuki reveals that these were simply the horns of narwhales found near Greenland. There are two fine full-page illustrations of the horns and narwhales. Next, Otsuki illustrates and discusses the medical benefits of saffron and nutmeg.

The Dutch also imported in Japan a balm, mumia or miira, allegedly made from mummies, which was supposed to have great healing powers. Here, Otsuki describes the process of mummification in ancient Egypt and the uses of balms derived from mummies in pharmacology. He compares mumia with other Chinese and Japanese medicines.

Agarikon is a wood-decay fungus, supposedly containing quinine and having great anti-malarial properties. This fungus was also imported and sold by the Dutch.

The flesh and bones of “mermaids” (ningyo) and “mermen,” described and depicted here, were reputed by the Dutch to make marvelous medicines.

Large portions of the text contain Otsuki’s translations from the Dutch in Japanese phonetic characters. Otsuki provides a number of case histories in which these medicines were used. It is important to note that Otsuki found several medicines useful and others ineffective.

Fine set. Some minor and mostly marginal worming.

❧ Needham, Science & Civilisation in China, Vol. V, Part 2, p. 75 & Part IV, p. 549.

Price: $3,500.00

Item ID: 6613