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  • The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo by Ian Jared Miller
  • Lisa Onaga
Ian Jared Miller, The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. 349 pp. $58.50.

Going to the zoo has become such an ordinary ritual that we might wonder at a person who has never had the chance to marvel at the dexterity of an elephant's trunk or admire the spotted slope of a giraffe's neck. Our interactions and familiarity with zoo animals come under great scrutiny in this study, which focuses on how the act of going to the zoo manipulated the politics of looking at animals as it was made into a feature of the civilized, self-governing state. Centered on the history of the first public zoological garden to open outside of Europe and North America, The Nature of the Beasts decodes the Ueno Zoological Garden by focusing on its original incarnation, the Tokyo Imperial Zoo, established in 1882. Ian Jared Miller refers to this zoo as an "anthropological machine" (29) that is today deeply embedded within the urban landscape of Tokyo. The analysis of the machine is as much about how various animals were brought together during the course of the Japanese empire as it is about how humans were brought together within a built environment where looking at animals engendered certain kinds of social behavior, especially among children.

Zoo politics were tumultuous during the rise and fall of the Japanese empire, as well as during Japan's struggle with wartime memory. Although Miller's analysis is based upon the rich archival trove of the Tokyo Zoological Park Society, this case of maintaining, governing, and exhibiting animal life may well have implications beyond the institution or the nation. The author certainly aimed to generate broader discussion of the existential tensions that arise when humans conceptualize themselves apart from nature in order to advance a project of modernity. Miller walks his readers through the iconic zoological garden in Tokyo using "ecological modernity," referring to the paradoxical exercises that emerged from a nostalgic longing for unity with nature itself. That longing, of course, had resulted from the partition of reason that demarcated humans from animals. Efforts to deal with that serve as a means to make sense of the genealogy of the exhibitionary complex. Everything there—and many other urban behaviors—grew from the assumption that only human beings possess reason. Miller [End Page 225] offers us, at the end of the zoo walk, a language with which to discuss the chasm created by that assumption. Ecological modernity thus provides a way to think about the gap separating human selves from nonhuman organisms and what that means in relation to ordinary, common, public life. The significance of this intellectual separation of human from animal, manifest in the conception, design, and material upkeep of the zoo, as well as policies surrounding it, importantly transformed how the Japanese viewed animals. New taxonomic sensibilities arose, as did new ways of viewing their own selves.

Miller hopes to overcome the scholarly habits and problems generated by assumptions about the nature-versus-society binary. If the Ueno Zoo is a "theater of Anthropocene culture in Japan" (9), and if modernity has always already been ecological, readers may wish to reconsider what it means to be human in an age of civilization and enlightenment. Situated squarely in the discourse of the Anthropocene as popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, Miller makes a bold and important move: he questions the academic separation of civilization from the natural world, both in Japan and elsewhere. Favoring the obverse, an understanding of the rapid convergence of human society and nature, Miller's book challenges those who study science and technology from a social angle to confront what we, as humans, have been conditioned to forget about our place in the environment. Specifically, historical analysis of a specific urban zoological garden provides the occasion to discuss the mass extinctions caused by human beings, the third signifier of the Anthropocene identified by Crutzen, along with changes in biogeochemical and terrestrial water cycles. Historians of mass culture...


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pp. 225-227
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Archived 2021
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