Saturday 16 April 2022

Extraordinary Life: The Japanese da Vinci - Part 2

After a really horrible first quarter of the year in which I have been battling illness, I really must apologise and catch up on my planned schedule. Last summer I wrote about the samurai who has been called the Japanese Leonardo da Vinci, Hiraga Gennai (1728-1870). The parallels between them aren’t exact but the sheer scope of Hiraga’s activity is more than enough to justify the comparison.

In that first article we left Hiraga relinquishing his feudal duties and abandoning any responsibilities to any feudal lord. He had the independence to pursue his own interests. A chronological survey of his life would see us jumping from one discipline to another. Individual surveys of each will reveal a better picture of Hiraga’s genius.

Let’s begin with the main focus of Part 1, which was Hiraga’s use of marketing. Product promotion isn’t something that was created in recent decades. The spread of the printing press across the globe from the 14th century helped to spread advertising and promotion more widely than any previous method. In Japan the development of printing during the first part of the Edo Period (1603-1868) saw a big increase in marketing, especially after paper prices began to drop.

The three main methods of advertising were product sponsorship of events, distribution of printed leaflets, and promotion of products during seasonal festivals. In fact, this is very much what we still see today. Hiraga used all of these methods. The third method was highlighted in Part 1 with his suggestion of promoting eels during the Midsummer Day of the Ox. This influenced others to sell their products and services in similar ways.

Among the other products Hiraga had a major hand in promoting was tooth powder, but he was also instrumental in the development of regional expositions of local products. He arranged several expositions from 1757, sending out invitations to potential exhibitors, writing and printing catalogues and promotional material and publicising them across a wide area. These expos increased national awareness in natural sciences such as pharmacology, agriculture and mining.

Hiraga’s interest in mining led to the setting up of several mining projects. Even though these eventually failed they did lead to the creation of the Arakawa River which greatly helped in the shipping of coal. One alarming mining project was finding a way to turn asbestos deposits into fire-resistant cloth.

Most of Hiraga’s accomplishments were influenced by his contact with Dutch merchants. The Dutch and Chinese were the only foreign merchants allowed into Japan and from them Hiraga learnt of the arts and sciences not known in Japan. Hiraga’s insatiable quest for knowledge drew him to the Dutch like a magnet. This made him a pioneer in Dutch studies in Japan, which is known as Rangaku.

Everything Hiraga learnt about European advances in science and technology came through observation and experimentation rather than formal tutoring. One of the devices he came across during his contact with Dutch merchants was a broken static electric generator. By disassembling it and working out how each part worked Hiraga managed to get the generator working again. It took him several years and the result caused a sensation. He gave public demonstrations of it working and gave electrotherapy to patients. Copies were made and other people began to use them in market places.

Another result of Hiraga’s contact with the Dutch was influenced by his knowledge of mineralogy and chemistry. As I mentioned above he developed mining techniques and he located a particularly good source of clay for producing high quality pottery. He persuaded the government to help him set up kilns and workshops, aimed at reducing the reliance on obtaining pottery from China or Holland. With influences from Dutch pottery Hiraga developed a new style that combined both Dutch and Japanese elements. This style became very popular and is now named after him – Gennai ware.

Hiraga’s knowledge of geology also led him to investigate the use of minerals in the production of paints and dyes. You’ll not be surprised to learn that Hiraga was an accomplished painter. Unfortunately, very little of his work survives, and there’s only one of his oil paintings known to exist today.

If you’ve read Part 1 of this Extraordinary Life you’ll probably be intrigued by a particular comment I made and are eager to know more. It was about Hiraga writing a book about farting whose title translates into English as “The Theory of Farting”. The title makes it sound like the book is a serious study of the subject, but is actually a satirical novel (Hiraga loved writing satire, which was a popular genre in his lifetime). The “Theory” is more of a discussion than a novel, not unlike ancient Greek philosophical works. The author describes his encounter with a street performer who could fart tunes and animal noises. A fellow spectator is appalled at the performance but the author goes into a speech on how farting is superior to any other art form. The performer is self taught, not a product of a school where he was taught to copy previous artists using established instruments and techniques. Hiraga is taking a dig at the artistic establishment, even though he was part of it himself. It reminds me of a performer called Methane Man who had a similar farting act and appeared on “Britain’s Got Talent”.

Hiraga was not just a satirist. He could turn his hand to other literary forms. His pioneering use of marketing was utilised in the catalogues he wrote for his many trade expositions; he write scientific books; and he write poetry. Hiraga’s homosexuality played a role in other works, such as a guide book on male prostitutes and passages on gay sex in his novels. One of his novels I am really interested to read is “Furyu shidoken”, Hiraga’s version of “Gulliver’s Travel”. The stories are not exact in content because it’s unlikely that Hiraga had actually seen a copy of “Gulliver’s Travels”. He may have heard snippets about the novel from his Dutch contacts and used these as inspiration for his own novel.

With the extraordinary variety of disciplines Hiraga Gennai took up it is highly appropriate to compare him with Leonado da Vinci. However, unlike da Vinci, Hiraga’s life ended on a down note. Several accounts of his final year vary in the detail but agree on the final outcome. In 1779 Hiraga was arrested for murder (of a carpenter or one of his disciples). Hiraga was imprisoned and died in jail at the end of the year.

Many scholarly works on Hiraga Gennai repeat the word “extraordinary” when describing his works, deeds and legacy. Like so much of east Asian history, comparatively very little is known in the west. While Hiraga may be unknown to the majority outside Japan in his native country, even in modern anime, his name is well known and familiar.