History of homegrown Japanese science finally adds up

by Sumiko Oshima

Think Edo Period, and you think ukiyo-e, bonsai, yakimono and kabuki. Few think of science, or of the technological skill and spirit, which would later hatch Sony, Toyota and a core part of the country’s national identity.

For a long time, little attention was paid to scientific and technological developments during the Edo Period (1603-1867). The typical historical account of Japan’s modernization went something like this: Scientific development stagnated under the rule of the Tokugawa due to the regime’s isolationist policy, which prevented the introduction of scientific knowledge from the West. But after a ban on the imports of foreign books was lifted in 1720, rangaku (“Dutch learning”) was spread across the country by young, ambitious scholars, so laying the groundwork for Japan’s modernization after 1868′s Meiji Restoration.

Put simply, the history of Japan’s science and technology has typically been presented as a history of the introduction of Western science. Similarly, Japan’s rapid technological development after the emperor was restored has usually been attributed to its citizens’ ability to throw off old and “biased” traditional values and absorb “advanced” Western knowledge.

This view is now challenged.

Take karakuri ningyo (mechanical dolls), for instance. From the early Edo Period, Japanese were fascinated with mechanical dolls used in puppet shows or exhibited in show tents. Surviving examples show how they are operated by elaborate internal systems that control their movements with clockwork, gears and stoppers. They could be powered by an uncoiling strip of whale baleen, or by the flow of water, mercury or sand.

The most famous of these dolls are the chahakobi ningyo (dolls that serve tea). Through a combination of gear wheels, cams and governors, these dolls move when a tea bowl is placed on a tray in their hands. They carry the bowl toward a guest, stop when the guest picks it up, then turn around and move back to the host after the bowl is put back on the tray.

Other variations of these dolls include geisha who play shamisen, children who fire arrows from a bow and frogs that hop.

But according to science historians, these are not just dolls — they are the same kind of automata whose development in the West led to great strides in the modernization of science and technology.

The exquisite nature of karakuri works can also be imagined from a drawing in “Settsu Meisho Zue,” a 1798 guidebook of famous sights in Settsu Province, which shows Dutch traders from the Dejima mercantile houses enthralled and astonished at a display of such dolls.

Another example of Japanese originality is offered by wasan (traditional Japanese mathematics).

During the Edo Period, Japanese mathematical knowledge developed from the introduction of simple arithmetic from China. Mathematicians vied with each other in gidai keishoh, a custom according to which the one among them to publish a mathematical book would pose a problem at the end — to be solved by another mathematician who would in turn publish his own book and pose another question. This relay of questions and answers encouraged the presentation of new methods and theories which while appealing only to the intellectual curiosity of some mathematicians, helped others find applications in the field of astronomy or of land surveyance.

For example, a mathematician called Seki Takakazu developed a theory of determinants (square matrices used to solve simultaneous equations) which is more powerful than that of Leibniz and also predates the German’s work by at least a decade, according to physicist and science writer Tony Rothman who, in 1998, wrote about Edo Period mathematics in the magazine Scientific American.

In addition to professionals, mathematical curiosity also spread among the public through sangaku, the custom of dedicating to shrines a votive plaque with geometry problems and solutions. Local mathematics lovers demonstrated their efforts to solve geometry problems on illustrated wooden plates and also hung up, as a challenge, plates with a new problem they had set.

In contrast to the West, where scientific and technological knowledge was generally confined to social elites, such fields of interest were widely shared by the common people in Edo Period Japan, says Kazuyoshi Suzuki, a senior curator at the National Science Museum. “I think that’s the most characteristic feature of Japanese science and technology. Knowledge was not spread from the authorities, but filtered to the bottom of the society in a spontaneous manner.”

With a rise in interest in Edo Period science and technology, in 2001 the government launched “Edo no Monozukuri (Manufacturing in the Edo Period),” a five-year, 2.2 billion yen project involving more than 500 researchers from various fields that aims to further investigate and re-evaluate this “traditional” knowledge. The project includes the study of old, valuable objects in museums, private homes and antique lovers’ collections, as well as the creation of databases of objects and materials covering mathematics, astronomy, medicine, mining and machine-making. It also aims to undertake a comprehensive investigation of materials collected by the German doctor and naturalist Philipp Franz von Siebold and the American biologist Edward Sylvester Morse, and which are presently housed in European and American museums and research institutes.

“Looking at actual objects and connecting them to documentary materials is an important concept behind this project,” says Shizu Sakai, a visiting professor of Juntendo University who is one of the organizers of the research project. “By studying products incorporating scientific and technological achievements that were used in people’s daily lives, we will be able to find out how Japanese handled knowledge when Western science came into the country,” she said.

In the field of medicine, for example, it has been widely believed that Japanese medicine became modernized after the epoch-making publication by Sugita Genpaku and other doctors of “Kaitai Shinsho,” the first translation of a Western anatomy book. Genpaku has often been praised as the father of rangaku, and hence the forerunner of Western science in Japan. But such acclaim is often based on a view that Western medicine only came into Japan after Genpaku, and that Western science is superior to traditional Japanese science.

However, recent studies have shown that Japanese made selective use of Western medicine and pharmaceutical knowledge much earlier. For example, Wolfgang Michel, a professor at Kyushu University, says that in the early 17th century, Japanese physicians used various Western treatments, including distillation techniques for producing pharmaceutical oils, and soon mastered the complex steps involved in mixing, separating and filtering.

“It was always the Japanese who took the initiative,” Michel said. “They ordered, requested, chose, introduced or rejected [Western medical knowledge]. The whole process of the introduction of Western medicine has to be reevaluated — including the pre-rangaku era.”

Under the umbrella of the Edo no Monozukuri project, Michel is now making a comprehensive database of medical instruments, drugs and medico-pharmaceutical terms based on Japanese, Dutch and Chinese sources.

With a solid base of such information, Michel believes entirely new insights could follow, allowing us for the first time to draw a true picture of science and technology during the time of the Tokugawa.