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  • The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan by Maki Fukuoka
  • William Johnston
The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan by Maki Fukuoka. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv + 272. $45.00.

In Japan between the 1720s and the 1890s there occurred a “swerve” in the Lucretian sense that Stephen Greenblatt uses in his eponymous book. There, he describes the swerve that occurred during the European Renaissance as the “change from one way of perceiving and living in the world to another.”1 This also aptly describes the change that started on the Japanese archipelago in the early eighteenth century.

Despite the strict limits on Japan’s foreign intercourse from the 1630s until Perry’s arrival, the period from the 1720s was one of intense intellectual activity that included growing attention to European ideas and culture. As it is commonly known, at that time the Japanese adopted and absorbed European, especially Dutch, approaches to natural history and medicine.2 Yet we know less about the processes of change during those years than about the outcomes. By 1895, the Japanese had structured people’s lives around modern clocks and calendars, initiated the compilation of national vital and other statistics, developed an industrial economy, founded universities, mandated universal education, created a constitutional state, established a modern army and navy that defeated China at war, acquired a foreign empire, and proven themselves capable of cutting-edge scientific work, at least in bacteriology and other medical sciences. And these are only some of the most important changes that those years witnessed. Discoveries by Japanese physicists that contributed to the building of atomic bombs were soon to follow. The Japanese had “swerved” in a way that made them the first non-Western people to become major participants in the projects of modernity.

The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan, by Maki Fukuoka, examines an important [End Page 348] part of that swerve. It contributes substantially to our understanding both why and how the Japanese adopted from Europeans several new approaches to perceiving and comprehending the natural world. In doing so it also provides a perspective on how far we have come in recent decades regarding our understandings of Japan’s early adoption of European natural history and medicine. In retrospect, previous explanations of this process, such as those based on Cold War–era modernization theory, now look as quaint as the search for cosmic ether by nineteenth-century physicists.3

Fukuoka begins by discussing a particular word: shashin 写真. Most readers familiar with the Japanese language will instantly recognize this as meaning “photograph.” Few, however, might know that this term was in use well before the invention of photography in 1839, and well before the 1850s when the practice of photography became commonplace in Japan. In other words, one of the Fukuoka’s central arguments is that the European technique for making pictures called “photography” fit into a Japanese conceptual and perceptual framework based on Chinese ideas that predated the invention of photography by decades (p. 8).

More generally, Fukuoka is addressing a core problem in the transmission of ideas and practices between cultures, especially for those of science, by asking how a pre-existing epistemological framework became the point of entry for foreign ideas and practices. It leads us to ask: What happens when a new way of knowing or a new technology is first introduced into a culture and the immediate reaction is more of familiarity than of foreignness? This is not unusual. For example, in many places, when firearms first arrived, indigenous peoples often immediately understood their value and rapidly adopted them as weapons. However, when a society quickly accepts more complex practices and technologies, such as the Linnaean taxonomical system or photography, both of which are central to Fukuoka’s study, the historical forces involved are much more complex and deserve our attention.

The Premise of Fidelity shows how eighteenth-century Japanese [End Page 349] intellectuals struggled to find the best ways to identify, classify, and understand what they observed in the natural world. Plants, a fundamental part of...


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