Science for the Empire: Scientific Nationalism in Modern Japan

Science for the Empire: Scientific Nationalism in Modern Japan

Science for the Empire: Scientific Nationalism in Modern Japan

Science for the Empire: Scientific Nationalism in Modern Japan


This fascinating study examines the discourse of science in Japan from the 1920s to the 1940s in relation to nationalism and imperialism. How did Japan, with Shinto creation mythology at the absolute core of its national identity, come to promote the advancement of science and technology? Using what logic did wartime Japanese embrace both the rationality that denied and the nationalism that promoted this mythology?

Focusing on three groups of science promoters- technocrats, Marxists, and popular science proponents- this work demonstrates how each group made sense of apparent contradictions by articulating its politics through different definitions of science and visions of a scientific Japan. The contested, complex political endeavor of talking about and promoting science produced what the author calls "scientific nationalism," a powerful current of nationalism that has been overlooked by scholars of Japan, nationalism, and modernity.


On two hot, steamy days in July 1942, inspired by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, a small group of Japanese intellectuals gathered for a symposium titled “Overcoming Modernity.” They discussed the Renaissance, democracy, individualism, and Americanization, among other things. One topic, however, troubled them most: science.

In the words of the main organizer, the symposium, organized as a “Conference of Intellectual Collaboration,” was held to deal with a problem that had been “tormenting Japanese intellectuals”—the problem of how to reconcile “Japanese blood andWestern intellect.” Most of the thirteen participants were literary writers and scholars associated with the Japan Romantic School and the Kyoto school of philosophy, both popular during wartime for elaborating upon spiritualism, aestheticism, and a criticism of reason and obj ectivity the symposium did not reach any conclusions about how to overcome modernity, let alone what overcoming modernity meant; but they had things to say about classical Japanese poetry, traditional Japanese music, spiritualism, and gods.

When it came to science, however, evasion and silence prevailed. the symposium's discomfort with the topic of science was clear from the beginning. the first day of the symposium began with a discussion of the Renaissance as the essence ofWestern modernity. Eventually, a Kyoto Imperial University historian, Suzuki Shigetaka, intervened in this conversation, stating that “when we discuss overcoming modernity, it necessarily includes the problem of how to solve the question of science. We have been saying that overcoming modernity means overcoming the Renaissance, and it is rightly so.… [B]ut apart from that, there is a question of science. I

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