Basil Hall Chamberlain, born in Britain in 1850, was one of the first Westerners to write extensively about Japan, and was a contemporary of Lafcadio Hearn. He was born to the wealthy Chamberlain family of Southampton, and educated in French and German.

He travelled to Japan in 1873, five years after the Meiji Restoration, on doctor's orders: at the age of 18, he had fallen ill, and was told to travel to overcome his sickness. Within four years, Chamberlain was fluent in Japanese, and was lecturing at Tokyo Naval College. This makes his writings markedly different from Hearn's, as Hearn spoke very little Japanese and often implied that no Westerner could ever adequately learn the language.

In 1886, he accepted a full professorship at Tokyo Imperial University, now known as the University of Tokyo, as their first professor of Japanese and philology. He began the first English translation of the Kojiki, a project that would take him twenty years to complete. Along the way, he became proficient at every historical form of Japanese, and was said to be able to switch between different classical forms in mid-speech. However, Chamberlain was not immune to the ostracism often afforded gaijin, and in his popular 1890 book Things Japanese, he wrote the following famous words:

Seeing that you speak Japanese, they will wag their heads and smile condescendingly, and admit to each other that you really are quite intelligent, much as we might do in the presence of the learned pig or an ape of somewhat unusual attainments.
Chamberlain's works include:

  • A Simplified Grammar of the Japanese Language, 1885
  • Things Japanese, 1890
  • A Practical Introduction to the Study of Japanese Writing, 1905
  • The Ko-ji-ki, 1906
  • A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese, 1907
  • Japanese Poetry, 1910
  • The Invention of a New Religion, 1912 (available through Project Gutenberg)
  • A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, 1913
Chamberlain also translated the works of Fukuzawa Yukichi and other Japanese scholars into English. During his tenure at Todai, he sent many Japanese artifacts to the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, and they can still be seen there today.

He left Japan in 1911 and moved to Geneva, where he stayed until his death in 1935.

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