All About Glass

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Udagawa Yoan and William Henry, Seimi Kaiso: A Japanese chemistry text in seven volumes, published in Edo (Tokyo), 1837

All About Glass

Seimi Kaiso plays an important role in the remarkable story of Western scientific influences in Japan. When this work first appeared in 1837, Japan had been almost completely isolated from the larger world for two centuries. The Japanese were not allowed to travel abroad, and only the Chinese and the Dutch were permitted to enter Japan. From about 1720, however, a group of Japanese scholars began studying and translating Dutch scientific literature that reported achievements taking place throughout Europe. Known in Japanese as the Rangakusha, meaning “scholars of the Dutch school,” this group made certain that the advances of modern scientific knowledge would not elude Japan.

Detail of an illustration from Seimi KaisoUdagawa Yoan, (1797-1846), a Rangakusha and younger member of the learned Udagawa family, is said to have introduced chemistry into Japan with Seimi Kaiso. It was based on a Dutch translation of William Henry’s popular book, first published in 1800 as An Epitome of Chemistry and later as The Elements of Experimental Chemistry. Re-working the Dutch text into Japanese, however, was much more than mere translation. Yoan had to develop new terminology to describe chemical substances and processes, expanding the Japanese vocabulary of chemistry as he deepened his own understanding of the science.

Illustration from Seimi KaisoYoan’s primary interest in chemistry was its application to the practical arts, and glassmaking took its natural place in this context. Volume three of Seimi Kaiso contains a beginner’s manual on the chemistry of “biidoro,” the term for glass used by the Japanese at that time. It explains glassmaking techniques, gives formulas to make colors for use in glass, describes the major classifications of glass, and discusses certain chemical principles regarding the nature of glass. Although glassmaking was an ancient art in Japan, one can only guess how many new Japanese terms Yoan may have coined as he wrote this section.

In 1854, Japan’s period of seclusion ended with the trade agreements negotiated by Commodore Matthew Perry, and Japan “opened” itself to the West. Yet, thanks to Udagawa Yoan and other Rangakusha, an East-West meeting of intellects had taken place decades before. Works like Seimi Kaiso helped to launch Japan’s modern era, and traditional arts like glassmaking gradually made their way into the industrial age.

Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Henry, William and Udagawa Yoan. Seimi Kaiso. Edo [Tokyo]: Seireikaku, 1837.

Henry, William. The Elements of Experimental Chemistry. Boston: Thomas & Andrews, 1814.

The Development of the Japanese Glass Industry.  Papers on the History of Industry and Technology of Japan, Volume III. Erich Pauer and Sakata Hironobu, eds. Marburg: Forderverein “Marburg Japan-Reihe,” 1995.  

Kato, Koji. Translated by Fumio Tanaka. Glassware of the Edo Period. Tokyo: Tokuma Shoten, 1972.

Bolton, Henry Carrington. A Select Bibliography of Chemistry 1492-1892. New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1966.

Tsukahara, Togo. Affinity and Shinwa Ryoku: Introduction of Western chemical concepts in early nineteenth-century Japan. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, Publisher, 1993.

Yajima, Suketoshi. “The European Influence on Physical Sciences in Japan.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 19, no. 3-4 (1964), p. 340-351.

Blair, Dorothy. A History of glass in Japan. Tokyo and Corning, N.Y.: Kodansha International and The Corning Museum of Glass, 1973.

Published on January 6, 2014