From Scholarly Historical Research to Prize-winning Popular Fiction –The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Timon Screech)
Submitting InstitutionSchool of Oriental & African Studies
Unit of AssessmentHistory
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Professor Timon Screech's scholarship on under-researched areas of
Japanese art, history and
culture has reached a range of audiences outside of academia. Notably, it
has produced a
significant impact on cultural life, demonstrated most clearly by its
influence on the renowned
author David Mitchell in the writing of his best-selling historical novel
The Thousand Autumns of
Jacob de Zoet, set in Japan in the late 1700s (2010). Mitchell drew
extensively upon several of
Screech's publications to inform and, ultimately, enrich his work of
fiction, furnishing it with
historical contextual detail unavailable in any other scholarly source.
Screech has worked on the history of East-West relations in early-modern
Japan since the 1980s,
and has published extensively on Japanese history, art and culture, with a
specific focus on the
Edo period. After completing his PhD at Harvard University in 1991, he
joined SOAS where he was
elected Chair in the History of Art in 2006. He is also Permanent Visiting
Professor at Tama Art
University, Tokyo, having previously been Visiting Professor at the
University of Chicago, and
guest researcher at Gakushuin and Waseda Universities, Tokyo.
Screech published his first monograph, The Western Scientific Gaze
and Popular Imagery in Later
Edo Japan, in 1996. This book provides an original assessment of the
material culture of Nagasaki
(uniquely, an open port in the Edo period), and how that city came to
influence the hinterland of
Japan. Specifically, it explores the introduction of Western technology
and scientific instruments to
Japan, including glass, lenses, and mirrors, and their profound effect on
Japanese notions of sight,
and how this change in perception was reflected in popular culture. The
text draws heavily on
research undertaken in the archives of the Dutch East India Company and on
Japanese books, many of which had never been subject to scholarly enquiry.
The book was
translated into Japanese, resulting in significant scholarly impact in
Japan, and later reissued in an
English paperback edition in 2002 as The Lens within the Heart: the
Western Scientific Gaze and
Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan.
In another important monograph, The Shogun's Painted Culture: Fear
and Creativity in the
Japanese States, 1760-1829 (2002), Screech maintains focus on Edo
culture of eighteenth-century
Japan, this time exploring the career of chief minister Matsudaira
Sadanobu who was integral to
defining Japanese culture. The text proposes that, during the mid-Edo
period, a conscious effort
was made to establish a national Japanese identity through controlled use
of imagery in officially
sponsored art forms. As with his earlier work, Screech sheds new light on
area of Japanese cultural history, thereby making a significant and unique
contribution to studies in
this field. The same can be said of Screech's Sex and the Floating
World: Erotic Imagery in Japan,
1720-1810 (2009), which offers an altogether new and extensive
analysis of the genre of Japanese
paintings and prints known as shunga, seeking to re-establish it
in its proper historical context.
In addition to his monographs, Screech has edited the memoirs of two
employees of the Dutch
East India Company at the turn of the eighteenth century, making them
available to English-speaking
audiences for the first time in over two hundred years. These memoirs are
and meticulously annotated by Screech in Japan Extolled and Decried:
Carl Peter Thunberg and
Japan, 1775-1796 (2005) and Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns: Isaac
Titsingh and Japan, 1779-1822
(2006). Using sources in Japanese and many European languages, Screech's
commentaries to the original texts provide insightful contextual
information, particularly regarding
life in Nagasaki for European traders at the time.
References to the research
a. Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Imagery in Japan, 1720-1810.
London: Reaktion Books,
2009, 2ND edition. (Also published in Japanese and Polish)
b. Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns. Isaac Titsingh and Japan,
1779-1822. London: Routledge,
2006. (Published in paperback edition in 2009)
c. Japan Extolled and Decried: Carl Peter Thunberg and Japan,
Routledge, 2005. (Published in paperback edition in 2012)
d. The Lens within the Heart: The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular
Imagery in Later Edo
Japan. Richmond: Curzon, 2002, 2nd revised edition; first
published in 1996.
e. The Shogun's Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese
States, 1760 - 1829.
London: Reaktion Books, 2000. (Also published in Japanese).
Output b was submitted to the RAE in 2008.
Details of the impact
Screech's treatment of little-explored aspects of Japanese history, art
and culture makes him an
authoritative voice, especially on the Edo period (1603-1868), when Japan
was ruled by the
Tokugawa shogunate and characterised by strict social order and
isolationist foreign policies.
Many of Screech's works constitute the only available resources concerning
their subject matter,
thus their contribution to understanding of Japan cannot be
Screech's accessible and entertaining writing style makes his work
available to audiences beyond
academia, resulting in considerable impact on cultural life and
creativity. Significantly, the
publications listed above proved invaluable sources for the celebrated
British novelist David
Mitchell. Mitchell "relied extensively" on Screech's work to inform the
writing of his 2010 historical
novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (1, 2, 3 and 4, below).
The novel, set at the turn of
the eighteenth century, depicts Dejima, the Dutch East India Company's
walled enclave in the
harbour of Nagasaki
(for almost two centuries, Japan's sole point of contact with the European
world), and tells the story of a Dutch trader's love for a Japanese
midwife. Mitchell incorporates
into his novel numerous historical details, episodes and anecdotes
featured only in Screech's work
in order to afford it greater historical authenticity. Specifically, he
drew much inspiration from
Screech's editions of the memoirs of two Dutch East India Company
employees, Carl Peter
Thunberg and Isaac Titsingh. Although Mitchell does not fictionalise
either, his understanding of
the Edo period, and the complex encounter between East and West, owes much
lengthy introductions and highly detailed annotations.
Mitchell's novel was also heavily informed by two of Screech's
monographs: The Lens within the
Heart and The Shogun's Painted Culture. A close reading of
these texts enabled Mitchell to
recreate the intellectual world of the rangakusha, the Japanese
scholars of European sciences and
arts. A specific illustration of Mitchell's use of Screech's work is found
in Chapter Four of the novel
which features a description of bottles of pickled specimens outside the
State Room of the Dutch
East India Company in Dejima (pp. 37-8). These bottles, never before
mentioned in scholarly work,
figure prominently in Screech's analysis of medical and scientific
exchange in The Lens within the
Heart. Additionally, Mitchell's depiction of a Nagasaki brothel was
very much inspired by Screech's
Sex and the Floating World.
Mitchell himself, though never having met Screech, is frank about his
"intellectual and imaginative"
indebtedness to his publications, and explicitly attests to influence:
"He is the kind of academic interpreter of history and ideas upon whom
more popular interpreters
(lower down the food chain) rely (...). In my opinion, nobody else is
doing what Professor Screech
does: making accessible to interested non-specialists
(like me), via primary research, areas of
Japanese and East Asian culture which would otherwise lie buried, just
as the Titsingh and
Thunberg memoirs languished in untranslated antiquarian obscurity for
two centuries until his work
appeared (...). Nobody else I know of possesses so deep a knowledge of
the Tokugawa period — its
arts, economics, politics, religion trade, popular culture, its view of
itself — and writes about this
milieu so accessibly, and with such authority and verve."
Mitchell's use of Screech's pioneering scholarship was also recognised in
a review of the novel in
the London Review of Books, in which Screech is quoted as an expert
on the `cultural collision' that
took place in the unique context of the walled Dutch port of Dejima (5).
To date, Mitchell's novel has sold in excess of 200,000 copies in over 15
languages, with a
Japanese edition appearing in 2013. The novel won the Commonwealth Prize
for Literature 2011
(South Asia and European prize) (6), was longlisted for the Man Booker
Prize 2010 (7), and
shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2011 (8). It
was named among the books
of the year by The Time, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The
New Yorker, The Globe
and Mail, and The New York Times. It has also featured on
several English literature university
course reading lists, including Surrey (9) and Oxford (10).
Mitchell's use of Screech's research is noteworthy in its illustration of
how research can inspire and
inform a much-lauded work of literary expression, enriching it with
historically accurate detail and
enabling an under-studied period to be brought to life. As Mitchell
himself states, "Had I tried to
write The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 15 years earlier,
before Professor Screech's work
was published, it would have been an impoverished novel by comparison."
Sources to corroborate the impact
- David Mitchell, author
- Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
London: Sceptre, 2010. (The
novel has been translated into over fifteen languages, including
- Publisher's website UK, with reviews:
[Most recently accessed
- Publisher's website US, with reviews: http://www.thousandautumns.com/thousand-autumns/
[Most recently accessed 15.11.13].
- Review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Reynolds,
Matthew. "A Smaller
Island". London Review of Books 10 June 2010: 23-24.
- Commonwealth Writers' Prize:
[Most recently accessed 15.11.13].
- Man Booker Prize 2010: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/timeline
- Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-south-scotland-12932522
[Most recently accessed 15.11.13].
- University of Surrey course reading list featuring Mitchell's novel:
http://sits.surrey.ac.uk/live/ipo/ELI3013-0001.htm [Most recently accessed 15.11.13].
- University of Oxford Summer School course reading list featuring Mitchell's novel:
http://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/courses/details.php?id=q320-14 [Most recently accessed 15.11.13].