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Memory forever lingers on ‘fair-haired consul’

How did Belarusian Iosif Gashkevich compile the first Russian-Japanese dictionary, and teach citizens of Japan how to use a camera and to sew European clothes?
By Lyudmila Minakova

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Iosif Gashkevich is being celebrated worldwide, having been included on the Calendar of Commemorative Dates for 2014-2015 by the UNESCO General Conference.

The amazing traveller was a diplomat, being among the first to explore East Africa and rural China. He was an entomologist, an orientalist and linguist, and collected his own amazing collection of flora and fauna from Indochina, Japan, the Philippines and Korea. He became the first Russian consul to Japan after rising from reasonably modest beginnings in the Minsk Province.

Japan. An Orthodox church in Hakodate. Iosif Gashkevich mission was located nearby.

Exile to Beijing

Gashkevich was from a family of priests and was destined to follow in their footsteps, finishing his studies at the Minsk Theological Seminary in Slutsk. As the best graduate, he was sent to St. Petersburg’s Theological Academy, where he showed ability in learning foreign languages and became enthusiastic about translating the Old Testament of the Bible from Hebrew into Russian. The Holy Synod viewed such an initiative as ‘criminal’; Iosif’s similarly-minded friend was punished, while he was sent into exile for ten years — to a Russian theological mission in Beijing.

Gashkevich began to study Chinese culture and its natural landscapes, writing articles about rice and potato growing, and silkworm breeding. He even wrote a book on Chinese Application of Mascara, Ceruse [skin whitener] and Rouge. His interests were wide-ranging, covering astronomy and meteorology, as well as various cultural aspects.

Japanese travel

Gashkevich’s ties with the East continued when he was sent to accompany Russian admiral and diplomat Yevfimiy Putyatin to Japan, acting as his translator and adviser, in 1855. As an expert in Eastern traditions, he helped negotiate the signing of the first Russian-Japanese contract. Japan, had forbidden foreigners to approach its coast for centuries, living in self-imposed isolation. Now, it opened its harbours to Russian ships.

Gashkevich made friends with Japanese priest Tachibana Kōsai, who was later to help him publish the first Russian-Japanese dictionary, initiated during his time in the Asian Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Russia — and continued while he taught at St. Petersburg’s University. As an imperial citizen, Tachibana could have been cruelly punished for speaking to a foreigner.

Iosif hid away on a Russian ship headed back to Russia and had the misfortune to be taken captive on coming across a British vessel. It was the time of the Crimean War and the sailors cared not for Iosif’s protestations of being a civilian. He was sent to Hong Kong and only returned to his homeland after the signing of a peace treaty between Great Britain and Russia. Gashkevich returned to Russia only briefly, being recommended by Putyatin for appointment as the first consul to Japan — where he served from 1858 until 1865.

With love to the East

At that time, the Japanese were wary of foreigners so even consuls were forbidden to travel upcountry. However, they liked Gashkevich and called him tenderly the ‘fair-haired consul’. His popularity was, in some part, likely to have originated in his having organising the opening of a Russian school for Japanese children in Hakodate and free medical aid for local people. He also organised lessons in navigation and shipbuilding for the Japanese and sent six Samurais to study in Russia.

Those Japanese who studied seamanship received a lighthouse lantern, barometre and other equipment in long time used in Europe. Under his direction, Hakodate tailor Kidzu Kakiti mastered photography and opened the first photographer’s studio in Japan — later, also, a workshop for tailoring European clothes.

After returning from Japan, Gashkevich served in the Asian Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Russia for several years. In 1867, he finally decided to return to his native home however, in Belarus, buying a small house in Mali, in the Ostrovets District. There, he began studying eastern philology and wrote a book on The Roots of Japanese Language — published after his death.

Gashkevich is buried in the Ostrovets District and a commemorative plaque is placed in Mali; in Ostrovets, near the office of the regional newspaper, a bust stands in his honour. A Minsk street is named after Gashkevich and his memory is respected abroad. A gulf in Korea and some kinds of rare insects (discovered by Iosif) are named after him. His bust is also found in Hakodate. Even after death, the ‘fair-haired consul’ is remembered by those for whom he cared. No doubt, he would have been delighted to see how the Japanese people have made their mark in the civilised world.
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