The Text as Fieldwork: The Book of Nature in Early Modern Japan

In early modern Japan, the study of nature, known at the time as honzōgaku, was primarily a bookish enterprise. The work of scholars who studied rocks and minerals, herbs and plants, flowers and trees, insects and fish, birds and animals—or, as they collectively called them, “myriads of things” (banbutsu) or “herbs-trees-birds-beasts-insects-fish-metals-jewels-grounds-stones” (sōmokukinjūchūgyokingyokudoseki)—began and ended with books. Canonical encyclopedias like Li Shizhen’s Bencao gangmu (Honzō kōmoku in Japanese editions) and Kaibara Ekiken’s Yamato honzō served not only as foundations of scholars’ research and repositories of institutional knowledge but also as the ultimate source of legitimation for their claims on nomenclature, taxonomy, morphology, and aspect as well as for the pharmacological, gastronomical, agricultural, and aesthetic use of plants and animals.


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The “book of nature” in early modern Japan could not become a metaphor for knowledge about nature because this knowledge was literally based on “books on nature.” Even a well-known group of amateur naturalists from Nagoya, whose research historians have described as the most empirically oriented of the entire period, acknowledged canonical texts as their ultimate epistemological source. Their empirical observations of live specimens had to be reconciled with the authority of these texts.

Itō Keisuke (1803–1901), National Diet Museum, Tokyo

Membership in this circle of amateur naturalists comprised almost exclusively mid- and low-ranking samurai from the Owari domain, who called themselves Shōhyakusha or “Society of the One Hundred Licks.” The name was an erudite evocation of the mythical emperor Shennong, who was said to have licked the “fundamental herbs” of Chinese pharmacological tradition (bancao in Chinese, honzō in Japanese, from which honzōgaku, “the study of the fundamental herbs”), thus imbuing them with healing properties. Core members of this group were the physician Mizutani Hōbun (1779–1833), the herbalist Ōkōchi Zonshin (1796–1883), and his younger brother Itō Keisuke (1803–1901). The last trained in medicine, pharmacology, and rangaku (literally “Dutch Studies,” the study of Western things through books Dutch merchants imported in Japan) and would become, in 1881 at Tokyo Imperial University, the first Japanese graduate in biology.[1]

Like many other cultural circles in Japan, Shōhyakusha members met regularly to discuss and conduct research on plants and animals. In addition to Chinese and Japanese encyclopedias, they used Western texts as sources. Some in the circle were familiar with the Linnaean classification of organisms. Mizutani Hōbun arranged his collection of specimens and his sketches of vegetal and animal species in accordance with Linnaeus’ taxonomy, and his disciple Itō Keisuke had studied under Franz von Siebold in Nagasaki. Their main activities consisted of recording the results of collegial observations and discussions about specimens that they collected or captured during expeditions in the Owari region. Their reliance on observation (jikken) and accurate, “true-to-nature” pictorial descriptions of plants and animals (shashin) has suggested to historians of science that Shōhyakusha members had developed a scientific approach. The goal of their research was the precise identification of natural species, especially those growing and living in Owari, in order to exploit their healing and nutritional properties to support the domainal Institute of Medicine (Igakukan) and agricultural production.

Collegial observations of actual specimens played a fundamental role in the cognitive practices of Shōhyakusha scholars. In that respect, pictorial representations of observed specimens had three main functions for them: evidentiary, cognitive, and iconic. First, illustrations were material evidence of the observational experience of the naturalists, who recorded the time, conditions, and circumstances of the collection and observation of the specimens. Second, they purported to convey the physical characteristics of the observed specimens. Third, they represented the essential recognizable physical properties of specimens, which allowed the precise identification of the species, of which the specimen was an individual.

Shōhyakusha scholars wanted to test the received textual information on plants and animals through collegial observational practices in the field and in public exhibitions that encouraged shared participation and open discussion. They then developed pictorial representations faithful to the observed plants or animals. On the one hand, fidelity to actual objects was the motivating goal behind the various representational techniques that the Owari naturalists adopted, from “realistic” pictographical renditions and the plastering of dried specimens on the paper to ink-rubbing (in-yō-zuhō) and shadowing methods (shin’ei). On the other hand, faithful renditions of actual specimens supported a complex epistemology, whereby images continuously negotiated with multilingual texts, descriptions, observational practices, and open debates with the aim of consolidating, rather than challenging, the taxonomical distinctions of species of Honzō kōmoku.

Exhibition of medicinal substances (yakuhinkai) in Owari, Owari meisho zue (1844), National Diet Museum, Tokyo

Indeed, Shōhyakusha naturalists did not conceive of practices like observation and description as an alternative methodology aimed at substituting the acquired knowledge of canonical encyclopedias, nor did they conceive of Linnaeus’ taxonomy as opposed to and irreconcilable with that of Honzō kōmoku. Observation alone did not have sufficient epistemological value to replace the canonical texts. Rather, the sophisticated observational and descriptive techniques they developed served to more precisely match the plants they studied to the species treated in canonical encyclopedias—supplemented with information they gathered from Western sources. Naturalists’ fieldwork began and ended with books.

Since canonical texts were endowed with the status of definitive authority for the epistemological claims of Japanese scholars, “natural history” in early modern Japan was a perfect example of “learning by the book.” But what kind of book was it? What sort of specific characteristics should this “book” have to reveal the epistemological premises of Tokugawa naturalists? It was certainly not a codex. It was not the closed and stable text that Eisenstein, Febvre, Koiré, and others had in mind when they thought of the printing press as the agent of change for the modern revolution in knowledge. While encyclopedias like Honzō kōmoku and Yamato honzō continued to be reprinted throughout the period, they were by no means immutable. Quite the contrary, they provided the template that framed the endless labor of update, correction, and addition by the naturalists.

As if to follow Umberto Eco’s remark that “after all, the cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopedia,” honzōgaku >scholars were primarily engaged in a continuous updating of the received knowledge in the canonical encyclopedias, first and foremost the Bencao gangmu. Information gathered from Western sources and from direct observation of exotic specimens of plants and animals were inserted into this traditional encyclopedic format without altering its methodology.

Cocoa plant from Ueinman shasei ryaku (1818), National Diet Museum, Tokyo

The work-in-progress nature of the enterprise is evident not only from the fact that scholars’ work circulated in the forms of “annotations to,” “corrections to,” or “addenda to” canonical texts such as Honzō kōmoku. The material form of these books, too, made them “expandable,” as manifested in the practice of inserting pages or adding “new” volumes to the old canon. The “book of nature” of Tokugawa Japan took the form of an always expanding “Google doc,” a sort of “Wikipedia of nature,” the constant development of which resulted from the collegial authorship of a community of naturalists.

Federico Marcon is Associate Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University.


  1. On the naturalists of the Owari Domain, see Maki Fukuoka, The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); and Federico Marcon, The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 196–202 and 245–50.  ↩
Suggested citation: Federico Marcon, “The Text as Fieldwork: The Book of Nature in Early Modern Japan,” History of Knowledge, May 22, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/22/the-text-as-fieldwork-the-book-of-nature-in-early-modern-japan/.