Academic journal article World History Bulletin

Cross-Fertilizing the Botanical Sciences: Japan's Role in the Formation of Disciplinary Science

Academic journal article World History Bulletin

Cross-Fertilizing the Botanical Sciences: Japan's Role in the Formation of Disciplinary Science

Article excerpt

Because the transfer of plants and their systematic study were the project of botanical gardens, many have focused on the correlation between economic botany and imperialism where the often public institution presented and then preserved the legacy of empire. (1) Yet interpretation of that heritage and its meaning vary, ranging from the linkage of science with the market to create a monopoly of information--a world-wide botanical cartel--(2) to the view that synthetics replaced an earlier reliance on natural commodities thereby maintaining international relations of dependency. (3) No matter their focus, these views emphasize botanical information as a facet of a larger, much more connected technological complex where information was coupled with application and industrial production. However botanical exchange and plant transfers were not only exchanges orchestrated by a metropole between itself and its peripheries, or among its peripheries. Within the university system they were fundamental in the development of disciplinary science; in application they were a basis for the formation and validation of scientifically trained experts; and in Japan, as well as in the United States, they were integral to internal colonization. These dynamics in connection with botanical gardens and empires encompassed an ever-changing, polycentric population of gardeners, researchers, agricultural and mechanical colleges, plant hunters, shippers, and distributors as well as subsistence and amateur cultivators who were not of one nationality, culture or outlook.

In Japanese history botanical exchange was a component of long-term diplomatic, political and economic relationships. As of the Yayoi era (900 B. C. E.--250 C. E), contacts with China, Korea and Southeast Asia furnished contributions such as crop varieties, luxury goods, intellectual traditions and government structures that were amalgamated with Japanese world-views and practices. From that ability to accept foreign inputs and rework them to domestic needs, the people of Japan succeeded in receiving and adapting several views of scientific reasoning. That should not be too shocking, however, for Japan was perpetually connected to the happenings and developments of the region. In fact, serious contributions were made in the midst of a period deleteriously treated as 'closed-door' or 'closed country'. During Japan's period of alleged 'isolation' (sakoku) perpetual relationships between specific, designated families, as well as the Tokugawa bakufu (shogunate), maintained connections with Korea, the Ryukyu islands, the Ainu (and through them the Russians), the Chinese and the Dutch. (4) While these encounters were relegated to specific places of exchange they merely limited direct foreign contact without eradicating influence. Moreover, constraints on foreign interface could not remove the impact of centuries-long interaction with China and Korea or the meaningful contributions of European merchants and missionaries before the Tokugawa era (1603-1868). The policy of 'isolation' therefore succeeded in restricting foreign access but did not separate the islands from Asia or the world. If anything, the most effective consequence of Tokugawa government policy was the prohibition on Japanese travelling abroad, (5) a limitation that denied Japanese scholars, pilgrims, merchants and travellers an opportunity to interact and learn within other contexts.

Ultimately, it was Japanese involvement in the Asian regional economy which maintained a milieu of cross-cultural interactions and an exchange of information as well as stimuli for commercial and political decisions that impacted industry, agriculture and science. In the Tokugawa period, Japanese commercial connections were the cause of a nearly unstoppable outflow of precious metals that threatened the monetization of the economy. Therefore the bakufu aimed to restrict the amount of permissible trade, but regulations in 1685 on the amount of silver traded abroad, as well as an attempt to replace silver with copper, dried abalone, shark fins and sea cucumbers, and the eventual ban on gold exports in 1695 were not successful. …

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