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© Microscope History all rights reserved

© Microscope History all rights reserved

Japanese Edo Period Microscope, ca. 1800


This is a very rare example of a wooden microscope dating to Japan's Edo Period (1603-1867). This was the period when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country's regional daimyo. During this time span, the samurai became the unchallenged rulers in a centralized feudal form of the shogunate. After some conflicts, the Closed Country Edict of 1635 prohibited any Japanese from traveling outside Japan. After 1636, the Dutch were restricted to Dejima, a small artificial island—and thus, not true Japanese soil—in Nagasaki's harbor.


This microscope came with a reproduction copy of the first publication in Japan to depict a microscope and microscopical views of insects.

Morishima Chūryō (1756-1810) was a Japanese author of popular fiction of the Edo period who also wrote a number of works in the field of rangaku (Western studies). He wrote under many pen names, including Manzōtei, Shinra Manzō and Tenjiku Rōjin ("old man from India"). The latter was an allusion to the pseudonym Tenjiku Rōnin ("masterless Indian samurai"), used by Hiraga Gennai, of whom Chūryō was the principal literary successor. Chūryō was the younger brother of Katsuragawa Hoshū, a physician to the shogun and a leading scholar of rangaku.
Rangaku (literally "Dutch learning"), and by extension Yōgaku ("Western learning"), is a body of knowledge developed by Japan through its contacts with the Dutch enclave of Dejima, which has enabled Japan to keep pace with Western technology and medicine during the period when the country was closed to foreigners from 1641 to 1853 due to the Tokugawa shogunate's policy of national isolation (sakoku). Through Rangaku, some people in Japan learned many aspects of the scientific and technological revolution taking place in Europe at that time, helping the country build the beginnings of a theoretical scientific and technological foundation, which helps explain Japan's success in its radical and rapid modernization following the opening of the country to foreign trade in 1854. Dutch traders at Dejima in Nagasaki were the only Europeans tolerated in Japan from 1639 to 1853, and their movements were limited to an annual trip to pay homage to the shōgun in Edo. They did, however, become instrumental in imparting to Japan some knowledge of the industrial and scientific revolution taking place in Europe: in 1720 the Dutch book ban was lifted and the Japanese bought and translated scientific books from the Dutch, obtaining from them Western curiosities and manufactures (such as clocks , medical instruments, celestial and terrestrial globes, maps and plant seeds) and received demonstrations of Western innovations.
Seen here is Morishima Chūryō's 1787 publication Sayings of the Dutch (Kōmō Zatsuwa, lit. "Red Hair Chitchat"), which records much knowledge received from the Dutch. The book volume seen here details a microscope and presents microscopical views of insects and "animalcules", similarely to Western  literature of the 18th century.

(Source: Wikipedia)

This microscope undoubtedly draws its inspiration from the tripod model of Nuremberg microscopes from the last decades of the 18th century. Although the dimensions are smaller, the general design is quite similar, yet it has a Japanese "twist". For example, the legs designed in the German original in a rounded manner reminiscent of furniture legs become here to resemble bamboo poles. However, the similarity ends when you remove the optical unit, which is extremely simple and has less than basic image quality. This is in contrast to the German original which has a draw tube and three lenses, and the quality of the image obtained is relatively good for the amateur production and the period. The wood used to make it is rosewood, used for the period’s high-quality products such as luxurious tables and column supports. 

The tube contains an eyepiece and objective lens, allowing for magnification around 50 times. Therefore, the microscope is reasonably practical. The movement of the tube with the eyepiece lens is smooth when two white dots, marked on the tube and the sleeve, are aligned.

The base of the microscope bears a set of characters within a compass-like circle. These characters are the "Bagua," which is used for divination and other purposes in China. The central characters are unclear and indiscernible. However, the emblem is clearly the Bagua and of Chinese origin, but it was also commonly used in Japan during the Edo period. The Bagua is a legendary creation of Fuxi, representing the interactions of heaven, earth, and nature. The shapes of the trigrams represent various phenomena.

Kan ☵
Qian ☰
Gen ☶
Zhen ☳
Sun ☴
Xun ☳
Li ☲
Dui ☱

Bagua is often used to predict fortune and direction based on the Bagua's positions and orientations. There is no evidence of any contemporaneous crafting of microscopes in China, and no physical specimens remain. Hence, this microscope was likely produced and used in Japan. Since splendid European microscopes were imported from the Meiji era and on, these wooden microscopes were crafted in Japan during the later Edo period.


This microscope is comparable to a few other wooden microscopes, found in museums in Japan. Each one of them is uniquely made and has no similars. They are intricately crafted using the very hard and expensive "rosewood crackle" as raw material, employing advanced carving techniques. Presumably, these microscopes were made by highly skilled artisans and are not mere trinkets or toys but rather for pastime use by the elite.

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