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Reviewed by:
  • Engineering War and Peace in Modern Japan by Takashi Nishiyama
  • Takashi Yoshida (bio)
Engineering War and Peace in Modern Japan, 1868–1964. By Takashi Nishiyama. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2014. xiv, 264 pages. $55.00, cloth; $55.00, E-book.

According to Takashi Nishiyama, this monograph provides “a close cultural study of the engineers’ changing connections to their laboratories, research institutions, and local/regional surroundings, as well as economic and political worlds within and outside of Japan at times of war and peace” (p. 5). The first of seven chapters traces engineering education in Japan from 1862 to 1942. Chapters 2 and 3 examine army and navy aeronautical engineers and their accomplishments, including their involvement in the development of the rocket-propelled suicide glider. Chapter 4 focuses on aeronautical engineers and their fate during the Allied occupation (1945–52). Chapters 5, 6, and 7 analyze the role of former military engineers, particularly aeronautical engineers, in Japan’s postwar railway industry, including the development of the bullet train (Shinkansen) introduced in 1964. Nishiyama’s expertise in the history of science and technology as well as his great knowledge of military aeronautical engineers in modern Japan and their contributions in the postwar period are apparent.

The engineers in Nishiyama’s study include Matsudaira Tadashi and Miki Tadanao. During World War II, Matsudaira successfully reduced the flutter vibration of the A6M Zero fighter (pp. 58–60). Similarly, Miki minimized the weight of the P1Y bomber, thereby maximizing its speed (pp. 56–58), and he was the chief designer of the rocket-propelled suicide [End Page 389] glider MXY7 Ōka (p. 74). After the war, Matsudaira’s wartime research and experience contributed the innovative and effective suspension mechanism developed by his laboratory for trains that run at speeds of 250 kilometers per hour (p. 175). Miki’s laboratory, in contrast, designed the most aerodynamically efficient train at the time (p. 170).

Nishiyama’s monograph exposes readers to details of the development of the aeronautical and high-speed railway industries in times of both war and peace. Readers will appreciate Nishiyama’s attempt to understand the modern Japanese society that supported overseas aggression prior to defeat and that vowed for no-war pacifism after defeat through the history of engineering. The dust jacket quotes John Dower, professor emeritus at MIT, who found Nishiyama’s study “fascinating” and “path-breaking.” I agree with Dower’s evaluation of the book overall, but I do have some critical comments about Nishiyama’s analysis and its presentation.

While Nishiyama challenges stereotypical assertions of the alleged Japanese character in order to understand technological and scientific advancements in Japan both before and after World War II (p. 3), as a historian who has little background in anthropology, I find the frequent use of the term “culture” disturbing. Definitions of “culture” are not always provided for phrases such as: “army’s prevailing culture” (p. 35), “prevailing engineering culture at the INA [Institute for Navy Aeronautics]” (p. 51), “cultural backlash against Japanese nationals in the United States” (p. 100), “cultural restraints at home partly due to family expectations associated with birth order” (p. 102), “cultural, everyday issues” (p. 103), “military culture” (p. 132), “laboratory culture” (p. 132), “engineering culture” (p. 134), “postwar culture of defeat” (p. 144), “culture of the navy” (p. 148), “business culture of the railway industry” (p. 151), “engineering cultures” (p. 153), “long time cultural rivalry between Tokyo in the East and Osaka in the West” (p. 155), “peacetime culture of a defeated country” (p. 156), “design fashion culture during the 1930s” (p. 199), “cultural rejection of speed” (p. 173), and “cultural pride” (p. 182). Few, if any, of these might have definitive definitions because national, business, or organizational culture is never static or monolithic. Indeed, to me, most of these terms in Nishiyama’s monograph should be replaced with more specific terms such as “atmosphere,” “custom,” “condition,” “ethic,” “strategy,” and “trend.” The author clearly opposes cultural essentialism, but at times he seems to make generalizations similar to those that cultural essentialists often make.

Although I agree with Nishiyama that Japanese aeronautical engineers actively contributed to the government’s war effort during World War II, I cannot...


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