Furukawa Koshôken was a native of Bitchû province known chiefly for his accounts of his travels in Kyûshû and Tôhoku. A student or scholar of various fields, especially geography, he was responsible for a number of official regional surveys. After spending most of his life as a commoner, he was granted samurai status and a small stipend at the age of 69.
Born into a family of physicians who sold herbal medicines, Koshôken grew up in the village of Shinbon in Bitchû's Kibi district (today, the town of Mikibi in Okayama prefecture). He took his penname, which literally means "house of the old pine," from an old pine tree in his family's garden. In the autobiographical Koshôken zakki, he characterizes himself as a rebellious teenager, and writes that he often spent time with children of lower classes.
Like many other Edo period travelers of relatively high birth who we know about from extant diaries, Koshôken pursued studies in a variety of fields. He is known to have spent some time in Edo studying geography under Nagakubo Sekisui, along with, presumably, other fields under other mentors.
Some sources indicate that he journeyed to Nagasaki at age 32 to study Dutch medicine, but his Saiyû zakki (Various Accounts of Journeys to the West) indicates that his 1783 visit to Nagasaki (around age 57) was his first. He documented his travels around Kyûshû fairly extensively, but writes in the preface to the final version of Saiyû zakki that he lost much of his writings from that time when his house flooded, and had to fill in the details afterwards, from memory. The journey from Arita to Nagoya in Saga province is completely missing from the extant manuscripts, but what remains describes in great detail his journeys in the Chûgoku region on his way to Kyûshû, and to/in Moji, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Dazaifu, Shimonoseki and elsewhere, along with his thoughts and reactions to what he discovered there.
In Kagoshima, he met with a number of Ryukyuans, and praised their dedication and talent for studying the classics, and for arts and poetry, describing as well their dress, hairstyle, and physiognomy. In the village of Noshiro, in Satsuma province, he found a community of descendants of Koreans kidnapped during Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Korean Invasions of the 1590s, and forbidden from intermarrying and from adopting Japanese customs or dress even until this point, nearly 200 years later. He describes them with fascination and interest as well, leveling comments of disdain or disappointment never at foreigners, and only at provincial Japanese, who he describes at times as having "base customs," or as otherwise displaying less class, or a less cultured status, than those less geographically remote from the cultural centers of Kamigata and Edo. The same is seen in his descriptions of the Chinese and Dutch, in the sections on Nagasaki, where he visited the tôjinmachi (Chinatown), and met with local Rangaku scholars such as Yoshio Kôsaku. He was unable to enter Dejima, of course, but stood just outside and recorded what he observed through the gates.
In all of his travels, Koshôken also displays considerable skepticism regarding local legends, something rather uncharacteristic of travelogues and travel guides of the Edo period. He was also dismissive of religious orders, and while not critical of the shogunate, could at times be quite harsh towards local daimyô. After being pushed to the side of the road by the procession of the lord of Sendai on one occasion, he later wrote of the considerable moral weakness of Sendai han; similarly, he wrote that the manners and customs of the common people were determined by whether their lord was good or bad, and criticized the lords of Akita han for imposing too heavy a tax burden.
Koshôken's second major journey took place in 1787-1788, when his Edo-based mentor Nagakubo Sekisui recommended him to the shogunate, and he was invited to accompany a shogunal inspection tour of Tôhoku and Ezo, led by hatamoto Fujisawa Sukenaga. Koshôken documented the journey in a text titled Tôyû zakki, or "Various Records of a Journey to the East," the title complementing that of his Kyûshû diary. The party totalled 107 men, and Koshôken writes that conditions were difficult in various respects, and travel restricted, e.g. often to specific roads. Though commenting with interest on geography, placenames, and history or legends associated with given places, he complained about the incomprehensibility of regional dialects, of the many inaccuracies of the descriptions and maps in Hayashi Shihei's Sangoku Tsûran Zusetsu, and of various aspects of the journey besides. It is said that Koshôken's criticisms in his report to rôjû Matsudaira Sadanobu may have been a key factor leading to Shihei's house arrest in 1792 and the destruction by the authorities of the printing blocks for Sangoku Tsûran Zusetsu and another of Shihei's works.
As for his own writings, unlike many other prominent scholar travelers of his time, Koshôken is said to have never written with the intention of publishing his works for a popular audience; he did, however, share his writing with Sadanobu and others.
Some time after beginning their travels in Ezo, the party met with representatives of the Ainu, who Koshôken describes as he did the Ryukyuans, Koreans, Chinese, and Dutch he met in the south; he shows great fascination for foreign cultures, and describes in detail what he saw of Ainu dress and customs, writing of the Ainu in mostly positive terms. For example, he describes them as an honest people, simple and sincere, who rarely commit adultery and who punish it severely, and who mourn deeply. Importantly, he does not describe the Ainu as undeveloped or inferior in any way, or recommend any project of Japanization, colonization, or assimilation be undertaken. As a member of a formal shogunate party, Koshôken was privileged to meet with the lord of Matsumae han, among others, on the way back.
After his return to Bitchû in 1796, he entered the service of the Okada clan and was granted samurai status and a small stipend. He remained in Bitchû after that, overseeing surveys and working otherwise as a local official or bureaucrat.
Koshôken died at the age of 82. His grave is located at the temple of Renshô-ji in the village of Okada.
- Bolitho, Harold. "Travelers' Tales: Three 18th Century Travel Journals." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 50:2 (1990). pp485-504.
- "Furukawa Koshôken." Asahi Nihon rekishi jinbutsu jiten 朝日日本歴史人物事典. Asahi Shimbun Publishing.
- Plutschow, Hebert. A Reader in Edo Period Travel. Global Oriental Ltd, 2006. pp89-121.