(Friday Night History) A Forest of English

Last week, we talked about the Phaeton Incident, where during the Napoleonic Wars in 1808, Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew took his Royal Navy warship into Nagasaki harbor, kidnapped a couple of Dutch merchants, and almost provoked a war because of a lack of common language. While the incident ultimately only took the life of then-Nagasaki magistrate Matsudaira Yasuhide, it exposed the Shogunate’s weakness to protect against foreign incursion, as well as its interpreters’ lack of any meaningful familiarity with the English language. The Shogunate immediately changed the military disposition of forces in the Nagasaki area, as well as the signalling system used by the coast guard fortifications, but it also turned its attention to improving its translators’ familiarity with English.

A rather smug-looking Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew. Image PD

Now, before we talk about English, we have to talk a little bit about European languages in Japan up to that point. By 1808, the European language with the longest history in Japan was Portuguese. It had been the language of some of the friars who had visited Japan during the 16th century, though the Portuguese and Spaniards were later banned from Japan, and Portuguese it remains the source of several Japanese loan words, including ubiquitous ones like “tempura” and “pan.” There was also some awareness of Russian by 1808, as the Russian imperial navy made several forays into Ezochi (modern Hokkaido) and encountered troops of northern Honshu domains sent there for coast guard duty. But while there had been a few Englishmen in 17th century Japan, and indeed they’d once had a trading post in Nagasaki themselves, they’d lost interest and left the Dutch– who’d been in Japan since the very late 16th century– the sole European country trading with Japan.

By the 19th century, the study of European language, technology, medicine, and more, was all shorthanded as rangaku– Dutch studies– and regardless of the country of origin of a given thing, it was the Dutch studies scholars that were the authority on it and who usually worked with it. After the Phaeton Incident, the Shogunate established the Office for Translation of Barbarian Books (Bansho Wage Goyō), and it would be rangaku scholars who were significantly involved in its operation: Takahashi Kageyasu, Baba Teiyū, Ōtsuki Gentaku, Aochi Rinsō were its central figures; it would later become the Office for Research of Barbarian Books (Bansho Shirabesho). Meanwhile, the Shogunate also ordered the compilation of English dictionaries and the general improvement of its interpreters’ ability in English.

And it was to one such scholar, Motoki Shōzaemon, to whom fell the task of leading the compilation of the first Japanese-English dictionary. Motoki, son of an earlier Nagasaki based interpreter named Motoki Yoshinaga (1735-1794), was part of a family had been in the translation business for generations– first from Portuguese, then from Dutch. Motoki’s translations included Nieuwe richt der bosschilgieterij kunst by Gerrit van der Torren, which was translated as Kaigan Hojutsu Biyo, and was one of the texts on foreign military methods that influenced the Shogunate’s attempts at military reform.

Motoki Shōzaemon’s father, Motoki Yoshinaga. Image in PD

Motoki studied English with Jan Cock Blomhoff (1779-1853), the director (opperhoofd) of the Dutch trading facility in Nagasaki, who had some command of English. Blomhoff succeeded Hendrik Doeff, who we learned about last week as the embattled director of the facility during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, but had himself previously been a director of the same facility some years prior. Unlike any of his predecessors, on his second trip to Japan, Blomhoff went to Nagasaki with his wife Titia Bergsma, infant son Johannes, and Johannes’ wetnurse Petronella Muns, as well as an Indonesian maid named Marathy and a young male Javanese servant whose name I haven’t been able to track down. The household attracted the attention of the Japanese people it came in contact with, and Bergsma and Muns were the first Western women to have visited Japan, and were a popular topic of portraiture at the time.

Portrait of Blomhoff and family by Ishizaki Yūshi. Image in PD 

A product of Motoki’s study with Blomhoff was the compilation of A Japanese Interpretation of the English Language (Angeria Kokugo Wage 諳厄利亜国語和解, hereafter Interpretation) in 1811, soon followed by A Collection of English Words– or more literally, A Collected Forest of English (Angeria Gorin Taisei 諳厄利亜語林大成) in 1814. You can check out a fully digitized copy of Interpretation here: http://base1.nijl.ac.jp/iview/Frame.jsp?DB_ID=G0003917KTM&C_CODE=0091-027402 For their combined work in compiling Interpretation, the Shogunate rewarded Motoki and Blomhoff both. Motoki received 10 pieces of silver, while Blomhoff was presented with 50 bags of charcoal. 

Interpretation comprised ten volumes. It offers not just definitions but an introduction to the English alphabet, all of them Dutch-tinged owing to Motoki’s study with a non-native speaker. Parts of Interpretation are just words with a single word definition in Japanese, while other parts of it are more like a phrasebook. Some examples include– and I haven’t corrected these, so if you’re listening to the podcast, check out the blogpost to see the spellings, which are close but not quite right– “what time my one find you at home?” and “you shall be well come” “sir, I am much beholding to you that you do take that pains for me,” “It is true, Sir Palmer Fairbrun, all the town did much lamant for his death,” and “without doubt, it was a brave action, and to say the truth, the English fought as they uso to do, like lions.” Rather rough-hewn, and not quite a dictionary in the strictest sense– reading the scanned document, I find myself wondering just how much use the Shogunate honestly expected to get out of it. But Motoki built upon it in a few short years, presenting the Shogunate with A Forest of English a few years later in 1814. A Forest of English was upwards of 6000 words, and for this, he was again rewarded by the Shogunate, this time with fifteen pieces of silver. And unlike Interpretation, it was Japan’s first actual English-Japanese dictionary. This, like its predecessor, also had plenty of flaws, starting from the pronunciation, which remained Dutch-tinged.

Japanese study of English continued piecemeal mostly through books over the ensuing decades and improved in fits and starts. Visitors during those years, some of which overlapped with the No Second Thoughts order that we talked about in a recent episode, noted that there was some knowledge of English among Japanese interpreters whom they encountered. You might recall that during his July 1846 visit to Uraga attempting to open trade negotiations, US Commodore James Biddle was given a message in English from the Shogunate officials. This is how Sakamaki Shunzo reproduces it in his 1939 dissertation on Japan-US Relations:

According to the Japanese laws, the Japanese may not trade, except with the Dutch and Chinese. It won’t be allowed that America make a treaty with Japan or trade with her, as the same is not allowed to any other nation. Concerning strange lands, all things are fixed at Nangasacki, but not here in the bay ; therefore you must depart as quick as possible, and not come any more in Japan.

This is the English translation of a Japanese original which Sakamaki renders into English as follows.

At this time you are said to have requested saying that you wish to trade with our country. But, as the laws strictly forbid new intercourse and commerce with foreign nations, you should set sail at once. In recent years, several times have countries asked for trade, but these requests have been made in vain, and it will be the same with your country, no matter how many times you may come again. The national laws provide that matters concerning foreign countries shall be handled at Nagasaki, so that such matters are not handled here at Uraga. Never come again with requests, for there can be no settlement if you come here.

It wasn’t until Ranald MacDonald’s whirlwind visit– and subsequent incarceration in Nagasaki– in 1848 that English language instruction by a native speaker first came to Japan. Where Motoki’s study had been with a non-native speaker and study in the years that followed were either through more non-native speakers or alternatively the written word, MacDonald was at last able to offer pointers on improved grammar and spelling, and also correct pronunciation. He even notes that some of his students picked up American naval slang, words like “grog” and “shiver me timbers.”

Fourteen men studied with MacDonald while he waited under guard for the next American vessel to take him home. His students were Nishi Yoichirō, Uemura Sakushichirō, Nishi Keitarō, Ogawa Keijūrō, Shioya Tanesaburō, Nakayama Hyōma, Inomata Dennosuke, Shizuki Tatsuichirō, Iwase Yashirō, Hori Ichirō, Shige Takanosuke, Namura Tsunenosuke, Moriyama Einosuke, and Motoki Shōzaemon. Now, here I have to say, I was mistaken: this was not the same Motoki Shōzaemon, but rather the son of the one who compiled the dictionary– their names are pronounced the same but the “shō” of “Shōzaemon” spelled differently– this one’s name is spelled 昌左衛門 where his father’s was 庄左衛門. This Motoki Shōzaemon was the father of Motoki Shōzō (1824-1875), who continued the family tradition in study of English and work as a translator and interpreter for the Shogunate until its demise.

Today, of course, things are different. We can fire up an app or a browser and translate between Japanese and English and back again with near-instantaneous speed, or look up words we might be missing and do it just as fast. But the elder Motoki Shōzaemon’s Angeria Kokugo Wage was a beginning.

I’m Nyri, and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now– questions?


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