By examining different discourses dealing with animals and human beings, whether they were 'observable' or 'fabulous', in Edo period books, this panel aims to look at how Japanese scholars from the 17th and 18th century understood, classified, and interacted with their 'natural' environment.
Discourse on natural products had a long scholarly tradition in Japan, which draws its roots in ancient China. Important changes occurred in the 17th century when the increasing mobility of scholars allowed them to confront the reality with the content of their books. On the other hand, the introduction of late Ming Chinese books such as Sancai tuhui transmitted the curiosity toward fabulous beings or foreigners living in faraway countries. From the 18th century onwards, this curiosity was yet reinforced by the diffusion, within the literati milieu, of Dutch scholarly productions, which not only revealed an unknown geographical space but also showed a new way of depicting and drawing living beings. All these new experiences could not but influence the Japanese practices of observation and depiction of living beings and a number of works published during the 17th century and 18th century indicate the emergence of what Timon Screech called a "scientific gaze". However, this doesn't necessarily imply that a transformation was taking place in the way Japanese understood, classified, and interacted with their 'natural' environment. For instance, can we claim that this new gaze affected men-animal relations? Were the exotic animals introduced by the Dutch books or observed by castaways compatible with Japanese explanation of animal realm? Although there is probably no straightforward answer to such questions, it should be possible to get a firmer grasp of the issue through examining different discourses dealing with animals or human beings in books of the Edo period, whether they were actual, 'observable' creatures or 'fabulous' beasts. What aspects of these animals are stressed out? Is it possible to find, within this realm, different degrees of proximity with the human world? Are the two strictly differentiated? How are the various beings populating the globe described? How is the question of human 'animality' addressed? These are the interrogations we will try to take on in this exploratory panel.