Philipp Von Siebold
was born in Würzburg, Bavaria, where he studied medicine at the university
and took his degree in 1820. Two years later he entered service to
the Dutch government as an army doctor and was dispatched to the Netherlands'
In August 1823, he arrived at Deshima as the physician for fewer than twenty Dutchmen to look after. His encyclopedic knowledge soon attracted many Japanese to study under him, and the following year he established a boarding school in the then outskirts of Nagasaki. He taught Western medicine and treated Japanese patients -- he was a skillful eye-surgeon -- accepting as payment assorted ethnographic and art objects. Upon his disciples he conferred "doctor's" degrees in exchange for "dissertations" that dealt with a wide variety of subjects. These were later used by him in his books published in Europe. He wrote extensively on almost every phase of natural history and Japanese culture in general, partly in collaboration with the botanist J.G. Zuccarini of Munich. Like Thunberg before him, Von Siebold had many contacts and exerted great influence. He collected over five hundred books at the time of his first residence in Japan (1823-29), which were bought in 1837 by the Dutch government. During the Edo period of restricted foreign trade, the export of books and inland maps were, of course, forbidden. Whatever books he and his predecessors brought out were technically smuggled, even if Japanese officials winked at the infraction of the law.
At the end of his stay, it became known that Siebold was copying a map of the northern (Ezo) regions of Japan with the connivance of the Imperial librarian and astronomer (who he had befriended on the early 1826 Dutch court journey to the shogun in Edo). The Government (and some political enemies of the astronomer), suspecting that the intention might be to put the map to some use harmful to Japan, imprisoned all of Siebold's known Japanese students and friends, searched his house repeatedly, confiscated religious objects and other things which he might have intended to export illegally, and informed him that he would not be allowed to leave the country.
He had been informed of the impending situation and had spent a night in mid-December 1828 finishing a copy of the important map. Everything that was essential to his description of Nippon, manuscripts, maps and books, he packed in a large lead-lined chest which was then hidden. The director, Meylan, was informed, and also personally entrusted with the copy of the Ezo map, to be placed in the archives. All this was done in the name of science. It was illegal, but at that time the objectives of the anticipating smuggling must have been purely scientific, not political.
The storehouse on Deshima where some of his collection was stored, however, was officially searched in the following February, and many of his most prized articles were confiscated. A prolonged investigation into the matter took place. It was late October before Siebold was informed that he was to be permitted to leave Japan, but was to be banished forever. When he set sail for Batavia at the end of the year, he was given a send-off by some of his less suspected friends and students who had been released from prison. Some of those who were more suspected did die in prison. Siebold was forced to leave behind his young mistress and a two-year-old daughter (who lived until 1903), who were forbidden to accompany him.
Siebold returned to the Netherlands, prepared his Japanese materials for publication, was appointed in 1831 by King William I to be advisor on Japanese affairs, drafted the 1844 letter to the Tokugawa shogunate attempting to open the ports of Japan to trade, married the next year, and two years later moved to Germany. He had introduced to the Netherlands more than a thousand trees and plants, including the icho ( Gingko biloba ) and sakura ( Prunus serrulata ). His botanical and zoological collections are preserved at various sites in Leyden, where he established a nursery which acted as a channel for the introduction of Japanese plants to Europe.
In 1853 he applied to accompany Perry's expedition to Japan under the auspices of the United States government, but was turned down. Siebold was then called to Russia to provide information for possible negotiations to open Japan peacefully to foreign trade. Changes in the political climate at home, however, slowed Russia's policy of expansion, and America took action in 1854 to bring about the opening of Japan.
Five years later, the ban on Siebold's return to Japan was lifted, and he revisited that country on behalf of the Netherlands Trading Company accompanied by his son. His two year stay was during a period of great political disturbance. Diplomatic representatives of several foreign nations were murdered, but scientist Siebold was again somewhat in favor with a following. Because he was anything but a diplomat, his mission ended in failure, and his policies were judged contrary to Dutch interests. His request to be appointed Dutch representative in Japan was refused in March 1863, and that October he was pensioned. He died within three years, in Munich. A second collection of Japanese books had been gotten -- this time legally. The Academy of St. Petersburg purchased eight volumes of beautifully executed original drawings and a set of dried Japanese plants from the doctor's widow. 1
Manners & Customs of the Japanese
(1841, English translation):
The very smallest habitations have gardens, sometimes consisting of merely the corners of each side of the triangular back of the house, with the trees in flower-pots.
Before quitting this subject [Arts, Etc. of the Japanese] , a few words must be said of the Japanese gardeners, although their horticultural skills would entitle them to rank among the artists or artificers of the country rather than the agriculturists. These gardeners value themselves alike upon the art of dwarfing and that of unnaturally enlarging all vegetable productions. They exhibit in the miniature gardens of the towns fullgrown trees of various kinds only three feet high, with heads no more than this in diameter. These dwarf-trees are reared in flower-pots, as alluded to [in a poem given above under Izaak Titsingh] ; and when they bear luxuriant branches upon a distorted stem, the very acmé of perfection is attained; or, to speak more correctly, it might be supposed attained, had not President [Director] Meylan, in the year 1826, seen a box, which he describes as one inch in diameter by three inches high, but which Fischer represents, somewhat less incredibly, as four inches long, one and a half wide, and six high, in which were actually growing and thriving a bamboo, a fir, and a plum tree, the latter in full blossom. The price of this portable grove was 1200 Dutch gulden, or about $500. 2
Harley Harris and Hide Shohara
Japanese Botany During the Period of Wood-block Printing
(Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop; 1961.
Reprinted from ASA GRAY BULLETIN, N.S. 3: 289-561, Spring, 1961) pp. 8-11;
Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, Tokyo: Kodansha International, Ltd.; 1983, Vol.
7, pp. 192-193;
Jellicoe, Sir Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe (consult. eds.)
and Patrick Goode and Michael Lancaster (exec. eds.)
The Oxford Companion to Gardens
(Oxford University Press, 1986), pg. 518;
Bretschneider, Emil M.D.
(as Article III in "Journal of
the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society," 1881, New Series
Vol. XVI, Part I, Shanghai, 1882, specifically pp. 18-230, "Notes on Chinese
Botany from Native and Western Sources"), pg. 127;
The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of Plants and Earth Science
(Bellmore, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1988, reference edition published 1990),
Vol. 6, pg. 684;
The International Book of Trees
(New York: Simon and Schuster; 1973), pg. 45 has a contemporary
portrayal of Siebold by a Japanese artist. The biography of Siebold
has been given here at length to present the reader with some not-commonly-known
background concerning Japan during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Siebold, Dr. Philipp Franz von
Manners and Customs of the Japanese [in the Nineteenth Century from the accounts
of Dutch residents in Japan and from the German work of]
(Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company;
1973. Second printing 1977. First edition, 1841 by Harper &
Brothers, New York),
The very smallest
quote from pg. 46;
quote from pp. 233-234. I have listed this page as "Siebold"
rather than "Von Siebold" because the above book (
) identifies him thusly.