If Marco Polo was the first to bring the existence of such a country as Japan to the knowledge of Europeans, and Mendez Pinto the first to tread its shores, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) may truly be called its scientific discoverer. A native of Lemgow in Westphalia, he travelled while a youth in northern Germany, Holland, and Poland. At the age of thirty-two he joined the Swedish diplomatic service as secretary of legation, in which capacity he proceeded through Russia and Tartary to the Court of Ispahan. Eager for a sight of yet more distant lands, he then entered the service of the Dutch East India Company in the capacity of surgeon, sailed from Ormuz to Batavia in 1688, and thence via Siam to Japan, where he arrived in the month of September, 1690. At that time, the Dutch were the only European nation permitted to trade with Japan, and even they were confined to Deshima,-a part of Nagasaki,-where jealous care was taken by the authorities to keep them in ignorance of all Japanese matters. A yearly journey to Yedo to make obeisance before the Shōgun was the only change in their monotonous existence.
Kaempfer remained in Japan but two years and two months. Yet, in this short period and under these disadvantageous circumstances, he compiled a work which for the first time gave the world fairly accurate information concerning the history, geography, religious beliefs, manners and customs, and natural productions of the mysterious island empire. Returning to Europe in 1694, Kaempfer settled first at Leyden and then in his native town, where he employed himself in writing his two celebrated works, the History of Japan and the Amænitates Exoticæ in practising as a physician, and in quarrelling with the odious wife whose bad temper is said to have aggravated the fits of colic which ended in his death.
The History of Japan appeared, strange to say, first in an English translation in 1727-8; then in Latin (1728), Dutch (1729), and French (1729). All these were translated from the English version. Lastly, in 1777, came a German edition,-not exactly the German original, because Kaempfer's style was so terribly dry and involved as to make the booksellers fear that it would disgust even the German public, long-suffering as the German public is in that respect. The diction was accordingly modernised and touched up. Hence Kaempfer's work has never appeared in Kaempfer's words. Copies of all the editions are now rare, and command high prices.