Originally composed by Otsuki Gentaku in 1807, Kankai ibun records the extraordinary adventures of a group of sailors from Sendai in northeastern Honshu, as described to him during a series of interviews in the two preceding years. The sailors were blown off-course during a coastal journey from their home city to Edo in 1793 and shipwrecked, after a voyage of several months, on one of the Aleutian islands. Arrested by the authorities there, the four survivors were transhipped to Siberia and thence to St. Petersburg, where they were engaged as tutors in the Japanese language, eventually spending a total of eight years in Russia. During an audience with the Tsar they sought leave to return to their native country and finally reached Nagasaki with the Rezanov mission in 1804.
Although the work was not printed during the Edo period, several manuscript versions are recorded in Japanese university libraries, and the illustrations in this lot appear to parallel those in other copies. Given that they were based on a series of oral accounts, the illustrations are often somewhat fanciful and some are clearly influenced by earlier encyclopedias detailing strange races in distant lands. Most convincing are those which plausibly depict people and places in late 18th-century Russia including such themes as ice-bound sailing ships, dog- and horse-sledges, European cutlery, church and cathedral interiors, fairground equipment, soldiers in uniform, portraits of monarchs and their consorts and theatrical performances
Otsuki Gentaku, a specialist in 'Dutch' or Western learning, was a native of northern Honshu and studied European medicine under the celebrated Sugita Genpaku. He served the shogunate as an astronomer from 1811, and translated several Dutch works. For a modern edition of his text, see Ishii Kendo (ed.), Edo hyoryu korukushonshu: Ishii Kendo korekushon [The Ishii Kendo collection of records of Edo-period shipwrecks and castaways], vol. 6 (Tokyo, 1992-3).