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Father of Japanese Botany

Tavian Hunter
26 August 2014
Graduate trainee Tavian Hunter explores the history of Japanese botany and shows how one scholar played a key role in introducing Western science into Japan.

I have a great interest in East Asian collections and was recently lucky enough to visit the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London, to meet the Subject Librarian for Japan and Korea.

Although the Library’s main focus is on Humanities, Social Science and History, it was interesting to see that it also holds a number of books on Japanese botany. While there, I managed to catch a glimpse of a new book: Studies on Udagawa Yoan’s botanical works housed in the Kyo-U Library, published by the Takeda Science Foundation.

Udagawa Yōan (1798-1846)

Born in 1798 the son of the physician Ezawa Yōji, Yōan was a Japanese scholar. While studying Dutch under the interpreter Baba Sajuro, he was adopted by Udagawa Genshin, a scholar in the field of medicine and medicinal plants. He is known for his key role in introducing Western science, specifically rangaku (Dutch [ie Western] studies), into Japan. Yōan described and established many terms for the morphology, anatomy, physiology and taxonomy of plants, with many still in use today. In 1826 when he began working as a translator of foreign books, Yōan introduced pharmacology, Western botany and chemistry through a collection of books. Written in Japanese and parallel Dutch text, this new work on Yōan explores the Japanese-Netherlands exchange of botanical research during the latter part of the Edo period (1603–1868), through several of Yōan’s beautifully produced botanical books.


Photo of script from Botanika Kyo
Figure 1 – Script from Botanika Kyo

Botanika Kyô

Written in classical Chinese and published in 1822, Botanika Kyō (Sutra of botany) is considered the very first book to introduce Western botany into Japan. Influenced by the theories of botanists Christian Gottlieb Ludwig and Herman Boerhaave, Yōan states primitively that all plants can be understood through a plant-animal model that identifies and compares the botanical parts of a plant with animal organs: leaves with lungs, flowers with genital organs, fruits with eggs and so on.


Photo of cover and an illustration from Shokugaku Keigen
Figure 2 – Cover and illustration from Shokugaku Keigen

Shokugaku Keigen

Influenced by doctor and botanist Ito Keisuke’s publication Nijyūshi Kōkai (Explanations of Twenty-four classes), which first introduced the Linnaean sexual system for the classification of plant families in Japan in 1829, and under the guidance of German botanist and physician Philipp von Siebold, Yōan published three volumes of Shokugaku Keigen (Principles of Botany) in 1834. Together the volumes show Yōan presenting a rich history for the translation of basic botanical terminology and developing a history of natural philosophy and experimental plant physiology.


Photo of illustrations of Pyrus japonica and Magnolia obovata
Figure 3 – illustrations of Pyrus japonica and Magnolia obovata

Shokubutsu Shasei Zufu

Shokubutsu Shasei Zufu (Album of Plant Drawings) (1825) demonstrates Yōan’s talent as a botanical artist. He had learnt this from the herbalist training his adopted father gave him and from Inooka Gensen, a disciple of the Pharmacognosist Ono Ranzan. 87 drawings were done with a Chinese brush on handmade Dutch paper and are hand-coloured. This work helped to establish the practice of studying classification of plants by observation and through making sketches of living plants.

For the next two weeks, Studies on Udagawa Yoan’s botanical works housed in the Kyo-U Library, gifted to Kew by the Takeda Science Foundation, will be on display in the Library Reading Room. To find out more about Yōan, please come and take a look at this well constructed account of his botanical works, along with a number of our newest Japanese acquisitions.

- Tavian -


  • Studies on Udagawa Yoan’s botanical works housed in the Kyo-U Library, Takeda Science Foundation = Udagawa yōan shokubutsugaku shiryō no kenkyū by Shoji Endō ... [et al.]. Osaka : Takeda Science Foundation, 2014.

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