Letters from Japan by a German Geographer: Johannes Justus Rein, 1873–1875
January 2005 - March 2007
Johannes Justus Rein (1835–1918) usually attracts interest in the fields of history of geography and history of Japanese studies (Japanology) in two different respects. On the one hand he belonged to the first generation of professors at institutes for geography which the German government had ordered to be newly established at all Prussian universities in the 1870s. Many professors there were explorers and natural scientists like Rein. During this period first international geographical congresses were held. While Carl Ritter (1779–1859), who was the first German full professor in geography at the University of Berlin in 1820 and Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) are regarded as pioneers and founders of modern scientific geography and had an international reputation for excellence, geography as a theory-oriented, practice-related, and self-contained discipline taught at universities on a broader basis was not established until the founding of the German Empire (“Deutsches Reich”) in 1871.
On the other hand, Rein became well-known to a larger readership in the United Kingdom, the United States of America and beyond because of his comprehensive two-volume masterwork Japan nach Reisen und Studien im Auftrage der Königlich Preussischen Regierung dargestellt (Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann, 1881–1886) which was translated into English shortly after its publication in Germany. It was published under the title Japan. Travels and Researches Undertaken at the Cost of the Prussian Government (1884) and The Industries of Japan. Together with an Account of its Agriculture, Forestry, Arts, and Commerce: from Travels and Researches Undertaken at the Cost of the Russian Govenment (1889). An important reason for the appointment of Rein to the first professorship in geography at the University of Marburg (1876–1883) was the success of Rein’s research expedition to Japan from 1873 to 1875 which he had undertaken on behalf of the Prussian Ministry of Commerce. Only two years after the publication of the first volume of the German version of Japan: Travels and Researches, Rein was appointed to succeed Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905) as ordinarius of geography at the University of Bonn. It becomes apparent from Rein’s publications and his teachings that he was less interested in geographical hypotheses and theories but rather collected, arranged, and presented huge amounts of facts and information which he deemed geographically relevant.
The collection and dissemination of geographical knowledge both about one’s own area and about the outside world became increasingly important in the 19th century. This was not only for scientific reasons but also with regard to trade, natural resources, and military policy. As a consequence, geographical societies were founded which also retroacted positively on geography as an independent university discipline and as a school subject in its own right. The first geographical societies were founded in France (1821), Prussia (1828), and England (1830), later also in Russia (1845), the United States of America (1851), Austria (1856), the Netherlands (1873), Italy (1873), Denmark (1876) and Japan (1879), privately or supported by public funding. Geography in this period developed in the context of the fast progress of natural sciences and emancipated itself little by little from historiography and geology.
Johannes Justus Rein was born in Raunheim near Frankfurt am Main. In 1851, he started to study mathematics and natural sciences at the University of Giessen with foci on mathematics, chemistry and botany. However, he had to give up his studies after five terms in favour of a teacher training seminar because of financial problems. Later he worked his way up from an elementary to a high school teacher. Subsequently he received a doctorate and married Maria Elisabetha Caroline von Rein (1837–1896), with whom he had seven children. As a widely travelled explorer and natural scientist with ambitions for a professorship in geography at the newly founded Emperor Wilhelm University of Strasbourg, Rein was chosen by the Prussian Ministry of Commerce to undertake in situ field surveys about traditional industries and handicrafts in Japan for two years. The proposal to dispatch a natural scientist to collect information about Japan and to write firsthand accounts for the purpose of possible know-how transfers was submitted by the German Minister to Japan, Max von Brandt (1835–1920). Von Brandt dominated German diplomacy in East Asia for more than three decades and had travelled widely in the region. He is said to have been impressed with the development status of traditional industries and specific trades in the young Japanese Empire of the Meiji era (1868–1912) from which, he thought, the new German Empire could learn in some narrowly defined domains. One decade earlier already, Max von Brandt had participated in the Prussian Mission to Eastern Asia (December 1859 to October 1862) under the direction of Friedrich Albrecht Count of Eulenburg (1815–1881) which had led to the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation with Japan in January 1861.
A few months after the Iwakura Mission (Iwakura kengai shisetsu, December 1871 to September 1873), led by Iwakura Tomomi (1825–1883) to negotiate a revision of the Unequal Treaties (fubyōdō jōyaku) that were concluded in the 1850s and 1860s with the United States of America and several European powers, had visited Germany in March 1873 (Berlin, Essen, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, München), Rein began his mission to Japan. Unlike his predecessors Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) and Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796–1866), Rein—as the first foreigner in Japan—did not remain at selected places but actually travelled for about twenty months; as a matter of fact he was watched and patronised by local administrators, but he could move freely as nobody before him. Rein was able to visit almost three dozens of the modern 47 Japanese prefectures and to obtain a comprehensive picture of the newly unified Japanese Empire which found itself politically, economically, and socially at a major crossroad due to the pursued modernisation and upheavals after the dissolution of the domains and the establishment of prefectures (haihan chiken). Rein explored the main islands Honshū, Kyūshū, and Shikoku, and several smaller islands. A steamship journey to the hardly developed Northern main island was originally planned, but eventually could not be realised. The assassination of Ludwig Haber, the first German consul to Hokkaidō by a xenophobic samurai in Hakodate in August 1874, however, has probably had little influence on Rein’s travel plannings. Except for some grim gazes in the Tōhoku region, Japanese residents normally showed kindness and hospitality, and also—especially children—much intrusive curiosity rather than hostility. For the purpose of self-protection Rein carried a gun, which he used only once between Sendai and Kamaishi to flush out wild ducks.
Rein explored not only traditional industries and handicrafts (paper, leather, ceramics, silk, lacquer, iron, copper, bronze, textiles, wooden products), but planned from the very beginning to go far beyond his mission in its narrow sense to write a comprehensive book about the geography of Japan on the basis of his expedition and complementary studies. He revised and expanded the first volume of the original 1881-German edition of Japan. Travels and Researches in 1905 with the help of, among others, Yamasaki Naomasa (1870–1929). Yamasaki had studied geography and geology under Rein in Bonn and under professor Albrecht Penck (1858–1945) in Vienna. He later became the first professor of geography at the Imperial University of Tokyo (Tōkyō Teikoku Daigaku) and was also the founding president of the Association of Japanese Geographers (Nihon Chiri Gakkai). As a professor emeritus at the University of Bonn since 1911, Rein could not really enjoy his evening of life as he was paralysed and bedridden.
The letters Johannes Justus Rein sent from Japan to his family contribute to the history of German-Japanese relations and the history of geography. They provide vivid insights into the life of a Prussian family father and explorer in a turbulent period both for Germany, after its unification in 1871, and Japan, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when either nation considered itself to be a latecomer on the world stage of imperialism.