The American Oriental Society and the First Japanese Book Printed in the United States (1855)

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Peter Kornicki



Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1853–1854 was more than just a diplomatic mission: it also had scientific objectives and for the officers and crews it was in addition an opportunity to do some shopping. Among the goods bought in Japan (Shimoda and Hakodate) were various books, some of which were donated to the American Oriental Society. In 1855 the Lippincott Company of Philadelphia published a facsimile of a Japanese illustrated book, which had first been published in 1740, with accompanying transcription and partial translation. This was the work of Joseph Wilson MD, a naval surgeon who served on one of the ships that took part in the Perry Expedition. In this article I consider why this facsimile was published, how Wilson managed to learn sufficient Japanese to undertake the translation, and what its reception was. Why did it sell so few copies, why did the reviewers focus on botany, and why did it not stimulate an interest in the academic study of Japan? Why, for that matter, were no articles on Japan published in JAOS between 1855 and 1910? This article explores the hesitant start to American japanology by examining the fate of the first Japanese book printed anywhere in the world outside Japan.

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