chapter  1
16 Pages

On science and faith in the life of a Meiji engineer

ByALEKSANDRA KOBILJSKI

In a recent article, James Bartholomew raised a fundamental question regarding research and writing the history of Japan’s scientists with Christian affiliations.1 The irony of an article on Catholic scientists starting with “a confession” by the author can hardly be lost on readers, yet it reveals the intellectual integrity of the scholar whose work this volume honors. “It is with some trepidation that I write… on Japan’s Christian scientists,” writes Bartholomew. “I have had misgivings… because the topic poses serious intellectual challenges of definition and explanation… .”2 This article has been an encouragement and a challenge because I share Bartholomew’s misgivings about writing on Japan’s Christian scientists. That I now address the intersections of religiosity and science here resulted

from a particular event in my own research. In spring 2009, while doing dissertation research, I was given access to 25 boxes containing the uncatalogued papers of Shimomura Ko-taro-(1863-1937). This turned out to be a remarkable wealth of material on an engineer who was a member of Do-shisha’s first graduating class and went on to become first the dean of the Harris School of Science before a remarkable career in the chemical industry. This rich and hitherto unknown pool of sources removed one of two obstacles identified by Bartholomew-an absence of sources. The intellectual challenge of articulating the stakes of such an inquiry remains.

What can an examination of the relationship between religion and science (and technology) mean in Meiji Japan, knowing that the very notion of these categories was in flux? In addition, “religion” in Meiji Japan was not solely an intellectual category but also a legal concept. The word (shukyo-宗教) was elaborated in the context of political and legal negotiations for revision of the unequal treaties, which installed extraterritorially and limited Japan’s power to make legal decisions about its tariffs, customs, and trade transactions. The elaboration of the notion of religion also resonated with domestic reconfiguration of religious sites to create a version of Shinto as a dominant state religion.3 What is the relevance of a study limited to Christian scientists, a fraction of the 1 percent of Japanese who had any affiliation with Christian institutions at the time?