Claire Cooper

Visiting Assistant Professor of Modern Asian History, Sewanee The University of the South
Faculty Adviser: Federico Marcon

Dutch Formulations and Family Secrets: Medicine and the Marketplace in Early Modern Japan


This dissertation explores Japanese commercial, intellectual, and material engagement with medicines imported by the United East India Company (VOC) and its successors from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Medicinal substances sourced from across India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East like cinnamon, cloves, and saffron constituted a major part of Dutch trade to Japan from the seventeenth century onward. Various disruptions and reorganizations of the Dutch trading network at the turn of the nineteenth century caused an increase in the supply of these goods to Japan. This coincided with renewed scholarly efforts to translate and adapt “Dutch medicine” (ranpō) for use by Japanese physicians, apothecaries, and consumers. Interest in and consumption of “Dutch medicine” peaked in the nineteenth century, and it was available across Japan as commercial medicine (baiyaku) sold in shops and by itinerant merchants. Drawing from a wide range of visual, material, and textual sources in Japanese, Dutch, and literary Chinese, this study contributes to a better understanding of the objects, mechanisms, and agents involved in early modern global trade. The Dutch trade in medicinal substances was representative of the inherently hybrid and intra-Asian nature of the goods and ideas brought to Japan by the VOC and its successors. The adaptation and consumption of these products engaged a diverse group of historical actors beyond the socio-political elite, most notably apothecaries and merchants who leveraged growing interest in “Dutch medicine” to sell their wares. As a whole, this dissertation dismantles the teleological and Eurocentric narratives of rangaku and “Dutch influence” that have informed so many histories of early modern and modern Japan, instead offering an understanding of medicine and medical knowledge that is shaped by global circulations, local practices, and the diversity of the early modern marketplace.