- The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo by Ian Jared Miller
A love of nature is one of the persistent clichéd stereotypes about the Japanese people. Walter Weston echoed many previous Western writers on Japan when he opined, “No other race with which we are acquainted have the love of Nature so strongly inborn and so widely spread in them.”1 To be fair, this idea has also been advanced by many Japanese writers interpreting Japanese culture for the West, like Okakura Kakuzō and D. T. Suzuki. This view of nature and Japanese interaction with it has until fairly recently focused much more heavily on flora and landscape than on fauna, an imbalance that has been, if not corrected, at least lessened in the last twenty years. Japanese scholars like Tsukamoto Manabu, with his work on dogs, and Matsumoto Michio, writing on human interaction with birds in the Edo period, are examples of Japanese interest in animals. Modern Western scholarship on Japan has only begun to explore this field, less as a result of the influence of these Japanese scholars than as a reflection of the growth of environmental history in general and animal history in particular. One milestone marking this growth in Western scholarship was the publication of JAPANimals: History and Culture in Japan’s Animal Life, a volume edited by Gregory M. Pflugfelder and Brett L. Walker (Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2006). Ian Jared Miller contributed a chapter to this project that served as an early exploration for some of the material in the book under review.
The aptly titled The Nature of the Beasts (which is meant to allude both to nature as environment and to the sometimes bestial nature of human beings) is a significant contribution to animal history. Beginning with the provocative statement that “over the course of the nineteenth century, Japanese redefined and reshaped their place in the natural world” (p. 1), the book explores what Miller terms “ecological modernity” (p. 2), which is defined as the pursuit of power and the expression of civilization through the Western institution of the zoological garden. The Tokyo Imperial Zoo, more commonly known as the Ueno Zoo, is presented as a case study for this phenomenon.
Perhaps in order to underline the book’s place within a broader set of discourses, the foreword to The Nature of the Beasts was contributed by Harriet Ritvo, the doyen of animals studies and specialist in British history. In her brief essay, Ritvo frames some of the larger questions that are only implicit in Miller’s work. The book’s introduction then sets up the argument for the zoo as a mirror of modernity and provides [End Page 329] a definition of ecological modernity as the process of “intellectual separation” from the natural world juxtaposed with social changes (p. 3). This material is followed by three parts, each consisting of two chapters that are given thematic titles but are nevertheless roughly chronological.
Miller begins late in the Edo period with the Botany Sutra, by Rangaku scholar Udagawa Yōan (1790–1846; better remembered for his work in chemistry), and while the text soon proceeds to Meiji-period ideas about animals and zoos, the Botany Sutra is used as a resonator throughout the book. As an intellectual exercise, this works well, with the sutra attempting to synthesize existing and imported ideas. That work, however, is idiosyncratic and thus questionable as a starting point for either the study of zoology or the understanding of views of the natural world by Rangaku scholars or anyone else in premodern Japan. Chapter 2 analyzes the zoo as a reflection of imperialism. Parallels are drawn between the selection of animals and the manner in which they are displayed (behind bars and glass) and the rise of Japanese colonialism to full-blown militarism. Chapter 3, which links zoological gardens with the pursuit of “total war” from 1937 to 1945, scrutinizes...