Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY IN PART 1, we learned why Jonathan Swift included Japan among fanciful destinations in Gulliver’s Travels and also why he chose anonymous authorship for this satire. Today in Part 2, Lemuel Gulliver is “firft a Surgeon, and then a Captain of feveral SHIPS,” and annotator Issac Asimov offers more details about Gulliver’s Japan. Swift gets in an English dig against the Dutch.

This and the following images from The Annotated Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, edited with a biographical introduction and notes by Isaac Asimov, Clarkson N. Potter, 1980.

Gulliver’s Occupations. Note, Gulliver was a surgeon before becoming a sea captain. “Surgery,” Asimov explains, “was not yet recognized as a true branch of medicine. It involved the use of the hands, which made it a branch of mechanics. It was, in early times, associated with barbers, since cutting flesh was considered to be similar to cutting hair as far as skills and social position were concerned.”

In Gulliver’s time, the Company of Barber Surgeons of London guild was 186 years old, with a seven-year apprenticeship. Today’s familiar barber pole is linked to blood-letting, red for the blood, white for the resulting bandaging.

Argh! Pyrates! Part Three of Captain Gulliver’s saga begins with his ship being attacked by a pair of pirate ships. Gulliver says, “The largest of the two Pyrate Ships was commanded by a Japanese Captain, who spoke a little Dutch, but very imperfectly.”

The Pyrate Captain.

Asimov’s annotations on Japanese history begin with 1600, the time of Tokugawa Ieyasu: “After 1600, Japan had, as a nation, gone into strict isolation. By that time, European explorers had reached Japan and missionaries had converted a number of Japanese to Christianity…. As part of Japan’s self-imposed isolation, all foreigners were expelled, except for some Dutch traders who were allowed to remain on the small island of Deshima (now part of the mainland) in Nagasaki Harbor. This was Japan’s sole window to the outside world, and it accounts for the Japanese captain’s ability to speak a little Dutch.”

A Mistaken Identity. Completing Part Three of his travels, Gulliver makes a brief visit to Japan: “At landing I shewed the Custom-House Officers my Letter from the King of Luggnagg to his Imperial Majesty.” Gulliver is promptly transported to Yedo (Edo, the early name for what is now Tokyo), ostensibly to visit the Emperor.

An audience with the emperor, an illustration by Willy Pogány, 1919.

Asimov notes, “This, actually, would have to be the shogun, rather than the emperor, but a European would have been hard put to tell the difference.”

Gulliver’s (er… Swift’s) Dutch Anomosity. As noted in Wikipedia, there was no love lost between the English and the Dutch during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Four wars were fought, largely over colonial expansion and trade routes.

This animosity is made clear in Gulliver’s conversation with His Majesty: Speaking Dutch, Gulliver asks that he be excused from “performing the Ceremony imposed on my countrymen, of trampling upon the Crucifix….” (This humiliation being a requirement of Dutch traders in Japan.)

Gulliver/Swift continues, “When this latter Petition was interpreted to the Emperor, he seemed a little surprised; and said, he believed I was the first of my Countrymen who ever made any Scruple in this Point….”

Take that, you Dutch tradesmen! ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. sabresoftware
    June 12, 2020

    The surgeon’s origins as being part of the barber trade explains an anomaly in Britain, where surgeons are addressed as Mr. not Dr. The surgeon who saved my father’s life from lung cancer in 1961 was called Mr. Thomas Holmes Sellors. Subsequently became Sir Holmes Sellors, and earlier would have been Dr. until he qualified as a surgeon.


    He evidently was a good surgeon as the patient lived another 33 years after the operation!

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