Leiden University Libraries Digital Collections

Japanese agriculture in the early 19th century

The Seikei Zusetsu agricultural encyclopedia on Japanese agriculture (1793-ca. 1804) gifted to Philipp Franz von Siebold.

Lagenaria siceraria (Molina) Standl (Ser. 1042 26 p 006)

Japanese agriculture in the early 19th century

The Seikei Zusetsu is a richly illustrated agricultural encyclopedia that was commissioned by Shimazu Shigehide, ruler of the Satsuma Domain, a province in southern Japan roughly corresponding to modern day Kagoshima prefecture. The compilation of this encyclopedia lasted from 1793 to 1804, through a collaborative effort by So Senshun, Kokugaku scholar Shirao Kunihashira, Confucian scholar Mukai Tomoaki and Rangaku scholar Hori Monjuro. The purpose of this encyclopedia was to provide a source of information for improving agricultural production in Southern Japan. Improvements refer to the expansion, diversification, and maximization of agricultural production. Although the original encyclopedia consisted of a hundred volumes at the time of completion, seventy wooden printing blocks were destroyed in two major fires, leaving only thirty volumes to be published. A complete set of the 30-volume encyclopedia is kept in the Special Collection of Leiden University Library, as part of their Von Siebold Collection. Philipp Franz Von Siebold, a German physician working on behalf of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), was one of the earliest Western scientists to visit Japan.

The Leiden copy of Seikei Zusetsu’s agricultural encyclopedia is signed by Katsuragawa Hoken, with his own name and his Dutch name (‘Wilhelmus Botanicus’), suggesting that it was a present from him to Von Siebold. The Seikei Zusetsu catalogue contains illustrations of crops from 29 different plant families. The most represented crops are cereals and members of the cabbage family. About half of these crops are still grown in Japan today, so the catalogue contains many ‘forgotten vegetables’that now only survive as wild plants or ornamentals. The Seikei Zusetsu catalogue serve as a repository of early 19th centurry Japanese knowledge, and can serve as a basis to revaluate and rehabilitate ‘lost crops’ and their cultivars. The many chapters on agricultural techniques offer great opportunities to re-establish sustainable agriculture in the 21st century. Apart from its scientific value, the drawings are of an extraordinary beauty.