Technology in Modern East Asian History Workshop, June 11-12, 2015

Organized by Aleksandra Kobiljski, CNRS/EHESS-CCJ, France
Hosted by Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, UK


9.00 am – 10.45 am  

Lisa Onaga (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore): Engineering Cocoons: Making Silkworm Heredity Work

Engineering Cocoons examines a history of the mass production of silk tied to a history of heredity spanning a hundred years across the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This study examines a period of imperial ideology during which Japan disarmed and countered the potential threat of Western domination, in part, through experimentation with silkworms and their cocoons. The silk trade helped direct foreign capital into the country and also led to debates among scientists and producers over what dictated silk cocoon qualities. The reconfiguration of cocoons as scientific hybrids provides insight into how the Japanese appeared to produce “universal” knowledge in biology while simultaneously developing their own version of pan-Asian identity in the region. Its setting within global commerce and industry allows Anatomy of a Hybrid to probe why the formation of the cocoon reconstituted the very meaning of hybrid for multiple actors and institutions, as they dealt with anxieties about race, national unity, and silk standards, in order to chronicle the making of biological knowledge.

11.00 am – 12.30 pm   Kate McDonald, (University of California Santa Barbara, US): Systems Thinking: Transport Engineers, Geography, and the Crisis of Convenience in the  Japanese Empire

Systems Thinking explores how transportation engineers made sense of movement as a system in imperial Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. I focus on the history of the Nihon kôtsû kyôkai (Japan transportation association), and a group of studies published between 1915 and 1940 that defined transportation as a problem of systems engineering rather than of technology as such. I show that these engineers saw the pursuit of “convenience” (benri) as the motive force of historical progress and, in so doing, turned History into an argument for empire and for the expansion of capitalist society. Systems Thinking is one piece of a larger project that looks at how different groups conceptualized mobility in twentieth century Japan. Long treated as a story synonymous with the history of modern Japan itself, the project argues that the history of mobility has far more to tell us than a simple progression from slow to fast, or from pre-industrial to industrial. Rather, through a study of the social history of rickshaws, movement and everyday life, transport geography and engineering, and the concept of “Asian” mobility, I show that not only did mobility play a central role in the construction of Japanese society in the twentieth century but that it also constitutes a foundational — if unexamined — component of the writing of the history of the so-called “non-West.”

12.30 pm – 1.30 pm    Lunch  break

1.30 pm – 3.00 pm   Aleksandra Kobiljski (CNRS/EHESS, France): When Bad Planning is Good: Innovating in Japan’s First Industrialization

When Bad Planning is Good explores the engineering expertise and knowledge sharing in the process of devising protocols for producing metallurgical coke from local coals in the 1890s and 1900s. Reading reports and essays of most oligarchs and even biographies of some engineers, it may seem that spearheading industrial modernity in Japan was, with minor glitches, a smooth and planned affair. Yet, a closer look at the operational level and the process of setting up industrial production surprisingly poor planning seemed to have been the norm. Rather than dwelling on the reasons behind questionable choices and lessons not learned, this paper suggests that all that bad planning turned out to be good for stimulating innovation and fostering the creativity of engineers and foremen. Paper examines the ways in which specific local technical challenges were resolved along the way, largely by disregarding engineering orthodoxies and questioning the definitions of operational excellence devised in a different technical culture.

3.00 pm – 3.30 pm    Coffee Break

3.30 pm – 5.00 pm   Shinichiro Nakamura (University of Nagoya): Designing a Deluge: History of the Estimating Method in Flood Design

Designing a Deluge explores the introduction of the concept and method of what flood specialists call Project Design Flood (PDF). The PDF technique, including the calculation of the flood factor, was brought to Japan by Dutch engineers in the early the Meiji period 1862-1912). Untill 1945, it was calculated using the largest flood discharge in recorded history as a base line. However, after World War II, Makurazaki typhoon in 1945, Kathleen typhoon in 1947, Ione typhoon in 1948 and the record braking rainfall in Western Japan in 1953 lead to a number of floods exceeded the PDF calculations. In their wake, the floods and the damage they mete, wrecked not only infrastructure and livelihood of inhabitatns but also the reliability of the PDF method.  To imporve it, updating the risk factor for a large number of rivers in Japan. Yet, if recalculated based on the recorded post-WWII flood discharge data, the new PDF factors would require massive spending for flood protection. Aware of the impossibility to investe on such scale, government officials opeted to change the prediction method to Exceedance Probability Method (EPM). Developed in the United States before World War II, its adoption in Japan enabled flood protection to fit the national budget. In recent years, with the shrinking public spending, the estimating method and concepts have became again a topic of heated debate in both the public and academic spheres. By tracing the genesis and the evolution of the flood design method, this paper shows the ways in which it has been historically shaped by both technological change and political and economic exigencies.


9.00 am – 10.30 am  Zhang Xueqian (Needham Research Institute, UK): Uterine Disturbances: Curing Women in Nineteenth-Century Japan and China

Uterine Disturbances traces the discourse on the pathology of the womb and the development of treatment techniques in Japan and China in the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. Although womb was a defined organ in East Asian medical tradition, it is only in the nineteenth century that, after intensive interaction with Western medicine, it came to be conceived as an organ primarily responsible for women’s health, constitution, and behavior. Specifically, the paper examines the emergence of a new disease zôsô 臟屯 and its diagnosis and treatment in Japanese medicine. Existent in the ancient Chinese medical canon Synopsis of Prescriptions of the Golden Chamber 쏜匱狼論, zôsô was equated with shikyûkan 綾宮癇, a neologism coined to translate hysteria. Some doctors claimed to have successfully used a decoction recipe involving licorice, wheat, and Chinese dates to cure women patients from convulsions, depression, and excessive worry. Later, this recipe evolved into various popular medicines marketed as the treatment for women. In so doing, doctors in Japan and China remade traditional techniques, designated to enhance Qi and Blood in a gender-neutral body, into a gendered treatment of symptoms caused by biological uteruses.

11.00 am – 12.30 pm   
Shi-Lin Loh (Harvard University, USA): Manufacturing Radiation: Radiological Machines and Managers in Pre-War Japan

There are numerous controversies in Japan surrounding the exposure of Japanese bodies to ionizing radiation after 1945, of which the Fukushima nuclear meltdown is only the most recent. Medical radiation lies in the background of the more sensational accidents linked to nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation. It is an avenue through which ordinary Japanese people encountered ionizing radiation long before the atomic bombings, and which is still part of a standard infrastructure of contemporary healthcare. X-ray machines are the earliest instantiation of medical radiation technology, gaining traction in the field of modern, Western medicine in Japan by the early 20th century. But what lies behind their production – what enables a rentogen kikai or sÞchi to be used for medical purposes? Besides doctors and patients, manufacturers and technical operators deserve equal consideration as actors implicated in networks of medical technologies. This paper will analyze the machines and managers of radiology by discussing the activities of the Shimadzu Corporation in Japan c.1900 to 1945. Shimadzu was a major Japanese manufacturer of X-ray machines and a key actor in producing a class of technicians in Japanese radiology. The Shimadzu case shows that rentogen or X-rays are an important background piece of the puzzle in how radiation became institutionalized as medical practice in Japan.


Workshop made possible by the generous support of:
Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, The Needham Research Institute, Society for the History of Technology, 
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Joint Research Unit: China, Korea, Japan-EHESS/CNRS


Cite this blog post
Aleksandra Kobiljski (2015, April 27). Technology in Modern East Asian History Workshop, June 11-12, 2015. Japan Technology and Industry Working Group. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

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