chapter
16 Pages

Introduction

ByDAVID G. WITTNER, PHILIP C. BROWN

The histories of science, technology, and medicine (STM) in Japan are small but important fields, writings of which have often been subsumed under the auspices of other sub-disciplines such as economic or labor history. Given Japan’s reputation for technological innovation plus solid record of Nobel Prize laureates in both science and medicine, and nearly one hundred nominees, this is surprising. Yet until recently historians writing for an English language audience have largely neglected or stereotyped the histories of STM in Japan. There is no simple explanation for the lack of scholarly attention to Japan’s

accomplishments in science, technology, engineering, and medicine. One suggestion is that the historic lack of attention to Japanese STM in Western language literature resulted from the fields having no unifying authority like Joseph Needham or corpus of knowledge such as that he accumulated in the fields of Chinese science, technology, and medicine through his monumental History of Science and Civilization in China project. Perhaps this neglect derives from the comparatively late correction of the erroneous belief that Japan lacked fundamentally innovative scientific, medical, and technological traditions. Regardless, a reputation for imitation and marginal innovations,1 occasionally punctuated by more important developments, long dominated academic and popular images of the nation’s contributions to fields considered essential to the rational understanding of our universe and that could help humans manipulate their environment. Early on, advances in consumer electronics were recognized with jibes: Charles de Gaulle referred sarcastically to Prime Minister Sato Eisaku as a “transistor salesman.” Japan’s increased visibility in the global economy was recognized as partly built on innovations in quality control, but opprobrium for such accomplishments was often buried under a broader disparaging reputation of Japanese as “economic animals” and the country as a whole as “Japan, Inc.” When Japanese scientists were nominated for Nobel awards, the press, of course, focused on winners, not also-rans. Such a stereotyped view may still dominate sectors of popular conscious-

ness, but it has become increasingly untenable in the context of our contemporary consumer society, and certainly in the academic world. Japanese scientists now appear regularly among the annual lists of Nobel winners.

Since 1949, some fourteen Japanese have been Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics: Yukawa Hideki, Tomonaga Sin’itiro-, Kobayashi Makoto, Masakawa Toshihide, and Nambu Yoichiro-, Fukui Kenichi, Shirakawa Hideki, and Tanaka Koichi, to name some of the best-known among them. Product innovation, medical research, and engineering prowess from Japan earn accolades without the sarcasm of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Ubiquitous consumer products such as the compact disc player, the Sony Walkman and Discman, Blu-ray discs, pocket calculators, quartz watches, flat panel displays, and SLR digital cameras are all Japanese inventions. The portable electrocardiograph and esophagogastroduodenoscope are just two ground-breaking medical devices of Japanese origin, and Japanese developed industrial devices such as the power loom and new industrial materials like KS non-magnetic steel. Studies of Japanese science and medicine shared similar trajectories. Initially

they read as studies of exceptions to an undistinguished norm. Japan, it seemed, had no science until the modern era. To that time, Japanese medicine was an admixture of Chinese and outdated Western medicine gleaned through trade with the Dutch.2 Of course there were breakthroughs, the exceptions, such as Hanaoka Seishu’s first documented surgery under general anesthesia in 1804, or Takamine Jo-kichi’s discovery of epinephrine in 1900.3 These histories read as lists of firsts, discoveries of isolated scientific or medical bits rather than explorations of Japan’s larger corpus of scientific or medical knowledge. This long-standing, broad trend in the field of STM studies has now come under sharp criticism.4