From Plants to Policy, Sweden and Japan at Stockholm’s East Asia Museum

Whereas the relationship between China and Sweden began on trade and archaeology, the relationship between Japan and Sweden began on the basis of medicine. Once again the Swedes approached the Asians first. The first person to visit Japan was Fredik Coyett, the Swedish-born governor of the Dutch colony of Formosa (present day Taiwan).

The most prominent among the early visitors was Carl Peter Thunberg, disciple of Carl Linnaeus, who arrived in Japan to collect plants for classification and research. He arrived in Japan in the 1700s during the Edo period.

Carl Linnaeus is the father of modern taxonomy, the guy who began the system of classifying a live forms. He gave rise to the binomial nomenclature, the term used when we described humans as Homo sapiens. Modern taxonomy has retained the same scheme that he developed, and only included a larger grouping at the top – Domain.

A medical doctor and naturalist rained in Uppsala by Linneaus, Thunberg joined the Dutch East India Company and first sailed to South Africa and later Japan. However Japan then was an insular country due to the missionary activities of the Portuguese.  In retaliation, Tokugawa Ieyasu restricted the movement of foreigners.

Thunberg was limited to a small island. He build connections with local traders and paid them to collect local plants for him and then established himself as a surgeon able to treat the Dutch disease – syphilis. Because of this he was granted the right to visit the city on more occasions and he used it to further collect more specimens.

Carl Peter ThunbergCarl Peter Thunberg (Source)

“During his visits in town, Thunberg began to recruit disciples, mainly the Nagasaki interpreters and local physicians. His major knowledge contribution was in the teachings of new medical treatments such as a mercury cure for the “Dutch Disease” and of the production of new medicine. During this process, however, he also instructed his pupils in the Dutch language and European manners of conduct, thus furthering the growing interest into the Dutch and European culture on the side of the Japanese, known under the term rangaku. The Swedish writer Marie-Christine Skuncke even points out that Thunberg who had brought some seeds of European vegetables with him, showed the Japanese some botanical practices, thus contributing significantly to an expansion of the Japanese horticulture.

On the other hand, Thunberg also profited from his teachings himself. As a former medical student he was mainly interested in medical knowledge, and the Japanese showed him the practice of acupuncture. The cooperation of Thunberg and the local physicians even led to a knowledge fusion which brought about a new acupuncture point called shakutaku. The discovery of shakutaku was a result of Thunberg’s anatomic knowledge and the Japanese’ traditional medicine of neuronic moxibustion. Yet, he likewise brought back knowledge on Japan’s religion and societal structure, thus boosting an increasing interest into Japan, an early cultural form of Japonism.” (Source)

Swedish contact with Japan began in the Edo period and this is the period that is focused on in the East Asia Museum. Japanese wares were brought into Sweden by these early traders (nobles) who worked with the Dutch East India Company from ceramics,

to books

 and tea ceremony items.

The Japanese tea ceremony is a well known practice dating back to the 9th century.

While Sweden’s relations with China today are strongly based on trade, Sweden’s relations with Japan are based on trade and policy, both sides have similar social issues and have taken each others policies (welfare, aging etc) as references for their own too.

Heck, there’s even a mini-Sweden in Japan.



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