When US Commodore Matthew C. Perry steamed into the bay of Edo in 1853 at the head of a naval squadron that included four coal-burning “black ships”—intimidating machines that belched black smoke into the skies above the country’s vulnerable capital city—his arrival announced more than a change in Japan’s international position. It foreshadowed the onset of Japan’s industrial age and the reconfiguration of dealings with the natural world to suit the demands of “civilization.” That transformation was both cultural and material. As Japanese intellectuals and officials quickly recognized in the wake of Perry’s military pageant, whoever has the power to project a vision of civilization and humanity, and to make that vision prevail has a truly decisive power. All the more so in an age when the line between civilization and savagery was often synonymous with that between colonizer and colonized.
The pursuit of such power in Japan took one of its most spectacular forms in the “zoological garden” (dōbutsuen), which used the new figure of the “animal” (dōbutsu) to redefine what it meant to be human in an imperial age. This presentation uses the Ueno Zoo—the first zoo in the world not built under a Western imperial regime—to show how a new kind of mass politics—bio-politics—drove Japan’s transformation into the world’s first non-Western “great power.” The result of this transformation, in the words of the American zoologist, social theorist, and sometime phrenologist Edward S. Morse, was more than ideological window dressing. It was a “new species” of human, a “powerful and fearsome kind of humanity” that stood apart from the “dear samurai” of old—presiding over the transformed nature of the industrializing archipelago.
Ian Jared Miller teaches Japanese history at Harvard University. His research is primarily concerned with the cultural dimensions of environmental and scientific change. Professor Miller has two books forthcoming. The first, The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo (University of California Press), introduces readers to Tokyo's Ueno Imperial Zoo, opened in 1882, the first zoological garden in the world not built under the sway of a Western imperial regime. The second, Japan at Nature's Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power (University of Hawaii Press), is a collection of essays on Japanese environmental history, co-edited with Brett L. Walker and Julia Adeney Thomas. He is currently on leave with support from the Social Science Research Council. Next projects include the urban environmental history of Tokyo and the history of energy and electricity in modern Japan.