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Siebold. Philipp Franz, Freiherr von Siebold (A.D. 1796-1866), author of many books, both in Latin and German, on the zoology, botany, language, and bibliography of Japan and the neighbouring lands, and best known by the magnificently illustrated folio work entitled Nippon, Archiv zur Beschreibung von Japan,[1] which is in itself an encyclopaedia of the information concerning Japan which existed in his day, came of an old Bavarian family. Like Kaempfer a century and a half before him, he judged, and judged rightly, that the service of the Dutch East India Company was the royal road to a knowledge of the then mysterious empire of Japan. Appointed leader of a scientific mission, fitted out at Batavia, he landed at Deshima, the Dutch portion of Nagasaki, in the month of August, 1823. By force of character, by urbanity of manner, by skill as a physician, even by a system of bribery which fell in with the customs of the country, and which surely, under the circumstances, no sensible man of the world will condemn, he obtained an extraordinary hold over the Japanese, suspicious and intractable as they then were. Having, in 1826, accompanied to Yedo the Dutch embassy which went once every four years to pay its respects to the Shōgun, Siebold made great friends with the Court astronomer, Takahashi by name, and received from him a map of the country which in those days it was high treason to put into the hands of any foreigner. When, two years later, the affair leaked out, Takahashi was cast into a dungeon where he died, Siebold's house was searched, his servants were arrested and tortured, and he himself had to appear on his knees before the Governor of Nagasaki to answer for his share in the crime. He adroitly contrived to save his chief treasures, including the map so precious to geographical science, but he was banished from the country, and sailed for Batavia on the 2nd January, 1830. His persecuted pupils, sheltered by some of the leading Daimyōs, did not a little to further the cause of European learning in Japan.[2]

Arriving in Holland, Siebold was created a baron and a colonel in the army by the king of that country, and spent the next twenty-nine years in writing his numerous works and arranging his scientific collections in the museums of Leyden, Munich, and Würzburg. More permanent even in their results than these learned labours was his activity in the field of practical botany. To him our western gardens owe the Japanese lilies, peonies, aralias, chrysanthemums, and scores of other interesting and beautiful plants with which they are now adorned.

Meanwhile, Commodore Perry's expedition had burst open Japan. Siebold, in his old age, returned as a semi-official am bassador to the country which he had quitted in disgrace so many years before. This mission was not altogether successful. The times were for war, not for the peaceful negotiations of a man of science. Siebold's proper field was not politics, but learning. It was therefore perhaps no loss to his reputation that a second semi-political expedition to Japan, which Napoleon III. had thought of entrusting to him, was never carried out. Judged by his scientific works and their practical results, Siebold is the greatest of the many great Germans who have contributed so much to the world's knowledge of Japan, Kaempfer in the seventeenth century and Rein in our own day being the other most illustrious names. If small people may be allowed to criticise giants, we would here note that the only weakness discoverable in the early German school of investigators, as represented by Kaempfer, Thunberg, Siebold, and even Rein, is a certain insufficiency of the critical faculty in questions of history and language. Surely it is not enough to get at the Japanese sources. The Japanese sources must themselves be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. It was reserved for the English school, represented by Satow and Aston, to do this,—to explore the language with scientific exactness, and to prove, step by step, that the so-called history, which Kaempfer and his followers had taken on trust, was a mass of old wives fables. More recently, however, Riess, Florenz, and others have gained for German scholarship bright laurels in this field also.

Books recommended. Siebold tells the story of his own earlier journeyings in his Nippon-Archiv. The second edition has a short biography.

  1. A second abridged edition was published by his sons a few years ago.
  2. A somewhat different account of this incident was printed in previous editions of the present work, on the authority of an obituary article by Gerhard Schirnhofer. The present more trustworthy version was obtained from J. Murdoch, the critical historian of modern Japan, who has collated the original authorities.