Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Linnaeus and taxonomy in Japan

From this week's Nature is an edited extract of a speech given by His Majesty The Emperor of Japan to the Linnaean Society of London on 29 May 2007. The full text of this speech ( will be published later this year by The Linnaean.

In memory of Carl Linnaeus I would like to address the question of how European scholarship has developed in Japan, touching upon the work of people such as Carl Peter Thunberg, Linnaeus's disciple who stayed in Japan for a year as a doctor for the Dutch Trading House (pictured above) and later published Flora Japonica.

In the first edition of Species Plantarum in 1753, and in his later books, Linnaeus described many Japanese plants and gave them scientific names. Camellia japonica, for example, was described in the first edition of Species Plantarum, and this scientific name is still used today.

These Japanese plants were illustrated by Engelbert Kaempfer in his book Amoenitatum Exoticarum, published in 1712. Kaempfer was a German doctor who served in the Dutch Trading House in Japan for two years from 1690.

At that time, Japan had isolated itself from the world. Japanese people were not allowed to go abroad, and visits by foreigners to Japan were severely restricted. As the policy of isolation was taken to suppress Christianity, the Dutch, who came for trading purposes only, were permitted to come to Japan.

Dutch people were made to live on an artificial island, Dejima, built in the sea off Nagasaki and connected to land by a bridge; they could not leave the island without permission. The head of the Trading House, however, was to visit the shogun at Edo — present-day Tokyo — once a year, accompanied by his delegation including the doctor. Kaempfer thus visited Edo twice, taking more than 80 days for the trip each time. The 256 sketches of Japanese plants he made during his stay are now kept in the Natural History Museum, London.

Read the rest of the speech here


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