chapter  3
12 Pages

An emperor’s chemist in war and peace: Sakurai Jo- ji during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I


Sakurai Jo-ji (1858-1939) is now recognized as a highly significant person in the history of science in Japan due in no small part to the extensive discussion of his career in James Bartholomew’s Formation of Science in Japan.1 He was an organic and physical chemist by training with some reputation as a research scientist and skilled teacher during the Meiji period.2 However, it was above all as an organizer and diplomat of science in Japan, particularly active during the interwar period, that he gained recognition. Sakurai was involved in establishing three principal organizations for scientific research, all eventually utilized to some extent for the mobilization of scientists for colonial exploitation and war efforts during World War II: the Institute for Physical and Chemical Research (Rikagaku Kenkyu-jo or RIKEN, est. 1917), the National Research Council of Japan (Gakujutsu Kenkyu-Kaigi or GAKKEN, est. 1920), and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (Nihon Gakujutsu Shinko-kai or GAKUSHIN, est. 1932).3 He also assumed the presidency of the Imperial Academy (Teikoku Gakushiin) and the office of privy councilor from 1926 until his death in 1939. He stood quite literally at the crossroads of science and empire-building in interwar Japan. This essay addresses two questions: to what degree did Sakurai’s vision of science and empire, if any, shape the development of science in Japan? To what extent was he an unwitting accomplice to empire-building? Two relevant elements of Sakurai’s career and personality have already

been noted by historians: his strong British connections and his sense of inferiority to Euro-American scientists.4 The former is particularly pertinent to the second question in light of the deterioration of Anglo-Japanese relations after the Manchurian Incident (1931) and the fact that the very research organizations he was instrumental in building were utilized against Britain and the United States. The question here is to what extent he felt the dilemma of such a seemingly charged situation. Less discussed but even more relevant to the theme of this chapter is Sakurai

as a “great patriot.”5 On Sakurai’s patriotism and that of other Meiji scientists involved with the establishment of RIKEN, Hiroshige Tetsu observed that

“they all grew up together with the Meiji government and strongly identified themselves (ittaika shita) with the ‘establishment,’ both subjectively and objectively.”6 I am not of the opinion that the whole spectrum of Sakurai’s visions was predetermined by Meiji patronage. However, I do agree with Hiroshige that we have to go beyond the chronological framework of the interwar period to really understand the genesis of patriotism in Japanese scientists of Sakurai’s generation. I focus here on the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, which played

important but quite different roles in the development of Sakurai’s visions of science, the military, and empire. In Western historiography of twentieth-century science, technology, and society (STS), World War I has been identified as the starting point of the organized mobilization of science for military purposes. Hiroshige’s Kagaku no shakaishi and Bartholomew’s Formation of Science in Japan both devoted a chapter to World War I but not the Russo-Japanese War, and Hiromi Mizuno’s more recent Science for the Empire similarly started the whole story of “scientific nationalism” in Japan with it.7 In Japanese history, by contrast, the Russo-Japanese War outweighed the role of the First WorldWar in heralding the rise of Imperial Japan.8 By scrutinizing Sakurai’s career as an “Emperor’s chemist,” this chapter aims to bridge these two “starting points.”9  As clarified below, Sakurai participated in both wars as a scientist, which

suggests that the two wars helped him play an early yet major role in bridging science, empire-building, and the military. I therefore analyze how his visions evolved between the 1890s and 1930s and discuss their ramifications for science in Japan. In other words, I shall look at how he self-transformed from a chemistry professor into a national figure at the crossroads of science, technology, and the military and determined the basic character of the Japanese scientific organizations he helped create as “dual-use” agencies for wartime as well as peacetime.