The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo

The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo

by Ian Jared Miller

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It is widely known that such Western institutions as the museum, the university, and the penitentiary shaped Japan’s emergence as a modern nation-state. Less commonly recognized is the role played by the distinctly hybrid institution—at once museum, laboratory, and prison—of the zoological garden. In this eye-opening study of Japan’s first…  See more details below


It is widely known that such Western institutions as the museum, the university, and the penitentiary shaped Japan’s emergence as a modern nation-state. Less commonly recognized is the role played by the distinctly hybrid institution—at once museum, laboratory, and prison—of the zoological garden. In this eye-opening study of Japan’s first modern zoo, Tokyo’s Ueno Imperial Zoological Gardens, opened in 1882, Ian Jared Miller offers a refreshingly unconventional narrative of Japan’s rapid modernization and changing relationship with the natural world. As the first zoological garden in the world not built under the sway of a Western imperial regime, the Ueno Zoo served not only as a staple attraction in the nation’s capital—an institutional marker of national accomplishment—but also as a site for the propagation of a new "natural" order that was scientifically verifiable and evolutionarily foreordained. As the Japanese empire grew, Ueno became one of the primary sites of imperialist spectacle, a microcosm of the empire that could be traveled in the course of a single day. The meaning of the zoo would change over the course of Imperial Japan’s unraveling and subsequent Allied occupation. Today it remains one of Japan’s most frequently visited places. But instead of empire in its classic political sense, it now bespeaks the ambivalent dominion of the human species over the natural environment, harkening back to its imperial roots even as it asks us to question our exploitation of the planet’s resources.

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Editorial Reviews

Pacific Affairs - Noah Cincinnati

"The Nature of Beasts is a critical intervention in global zoo, environmental and Japanese histories. It stands on its own as a fascinating and thoughtful history, but also provides opportunities for future scholarly exploration into patterns of human dominion over nature across the East Asian world."
Journal of Japanese Studies 41, no. 1 - James R. Bartholomew

"This is a path-breaking contribution to the history of science, environmental history, and Japanese history."
Cross-Currents - Fa-ti Fan

"A rich political and cultural history of modern Japan."

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University of California Press
Publication date:
Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes , #27
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The Nature of the Beasts

Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo

By Ian Jared Miller


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95210-2


Japan's Animal Kingdom

The Origins of Ecological Modernity and the Birth of the Zoo

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. —Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History


Ecological modernity began to quicken in Japan when Udagawa Yoan completed his Botany Sutra (Botanika kyo) in 1822, an act of translation that claimed revolutionary social and scientific consequences. It was in that short essay that Udagawa (1798–1846), already a noted translator of Western medical and scientific texts at the age of twenty-four, proposed the Japanese word for "animal" that is still used today. The characters that he chose for the word—dobutsu—signify a moving or animated thing, a description that he linked with breath, air, and life force: ideas that share important elements with both the Latin term anima and the Buddhist recognition of affinity between people and animals. It was a choice that signaled the young scholar's careful engagement with botanical and zoological texts, foreign and domestic. It also indicated the scope of his ambitions. Beginning with Botanika kyo and continuing in a series of original and translated works, this practitioner of honzogaku—a discipline rooted in materia medica but best translated as "natural history"—sought to transform the study, classification, and cultural meaning of the natural world in Japan. The Chinese-style nomenclature used by Japanese specialists from the early Tokugawa era was, he claimed, lacking in precision. It had been superseded by the work of such Western scholars as Conrad Gesner, John Ray, and Carl Linnaeus. "People, lions, dogs, pheasants" and all manner of other "ambulatory things," he wrote, listing sixteen different creatures in the style of older encyclopedias, shall henceforth all be "dobutsu." The confused abundance of traditional nomenclature, Udagawa argued, must be consolidated into two Linnaean kingdoms: Animalia (dobutsu) and Plantae (shokubutsu).

Udagawa brought a religious sensibility to his task. The Botanika kyo was written in the form of a Buddhist sutra. Many graphs begin with the phrase "Thus I have heard that" (nyoze gamon), a pattern typical of the sutras referenced in Yoan's title. In nineteenth-century Japan the phrase would have been recognized as a nod to the recitations of Ananda, the longtime attendant to the historical Buddha who was said to have perfect recall. In local temples and domainal schools, children in the Tokugawa era (1600–1868) were taught that after the Buddha's death it was Ananda who recited his master's sermons verbatim from memory so that they could be transmitted within the monastic community. Only in the case of the Botany Sutra, it was not the Buddha from whom readers were to receive teachings, but a pantheon of foreign botanists and zoologists. The sutra begins with a litany of Western scholars labeled as taisei, or "great sages," and Udagawa plays the role of Ananda, a faithful reporter of correct teachings.

The Botanika kyo has been something of a riddle for historians of science in Japan. Why phrase a treatise on nomenclature—even one so full of ambition and new ideas—in the language of a religious text? Was Udagawa the only one to write in this manner? Historian Nishimura Saburo argues that Yoan was not alone. Another translator and scholar of Dutch Studies (rangaku, or the study of Western science and medicine), Yoshio Nanko (1787–1843), also presented an essay—a seminal piece on Western astronomy—as a "sutra" at around the same time. Focused mainly on economic and professional motives, Nishimura speculates that Udagawa and Yoshio may have hoped to see the principles of Western taxonomy spread like those of Confucianism or Buddhism, transmitted by disciples who would gain prestige through association with the "sages." To me, the Botanika kyo says that and something more. The Sutra's format suggests a purpose at once sociological and cosmological.

Like all religious texts, the "sutra" was concerned with the relationship between one world and another, and the short treatise argued for a new kind of separation between its readers and the natural world. The work gave lexical form (what Nishimura calls a "new systematics") to a broader shift in attitudes when it posited the existence Linnaean "kingdoms" (kai) as objective categories independent of human history and culture. It was not the natural world's creativity, therapeutic qualities, or moral content that Yoan celebrated, as Buddhist theorists and others had earlier in the Tokugawa era, but rather the rational order that he came to discern beneath its profusion of forms. This was a decisive shift. When Yoan argued that knowledge of nature was valuable in and of itself, he also suggested the possibility of a nature apart from (and prior to) human concerns. In doing so, the young theoretician accelerated a shift that gathered force across the Tokugawa era away from traditional ways of seeing life and being in the world. He drove an intellectual wedge—the idea of the animal—into the nascent gap between people and nature. Understood in this way, the sutra marks a moment of basic continuity as well as one of epistemological rupture. It suggests, in microcosm, the complexity of a transformation in attitudes toward animals—and by extension people—that began long before the 1853 arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and which emerged only through engagement with existing philosophies and practices (including older iterations of European theory).

Even as it placed humans (hito) at the head of the list of dobutsu, the Sutra suggested a distinction between people and other animals premised on the capacity for intelligent thought (chino). The very qualities that helped to ease distinctions between human beings and other creatures in other modes of classification—animation and sensation, for example—here became "characteristics" (sei) to be described in the rational pursuit of a better model. Yoan drew on Buddhism's recognition of similarity (not sameness) across species and an early-modern neo-Confucian ethic that made it a moral duty to exploit natural resources to outline a more remote relationship between humans and other living things. People certainly share physical traits with animals, later work in the field argued, but only human beings render those qualities into objects of rational contemplation.

The human capacity for reason, then, became a pivot in the double movement of ecological modernity. On the one hand, Yoan's theory facilitated the categorical separation of people from animals. This externalization—enabled by the homogenization of a hugely diverse set of living creatures as "animals"—took on unanticipated political importance after 1853, when Japan was more fully opened to international capitalism and imperialism. "Savagery" was the inverse of "civilization" in the bipolar worldview of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, Yoan's Sutra internalized that same dualism within the human. This was a defining contradiction. People and other dobutsu shared breath, air, and life force—the fact of living—but that contiguity had to be disavowed in the nation's pursuit of civilization and autonomy. Differentiation was politically critical but biologically impossible, and so it was always incomplete, a circuit that remained open rather than a process that could reach a conclusion. This tension—along with the sheer spectacle of extraordinary creatures held in captivity—gave the zoo its dynamism.

As in Europe, no single discovery led to this new way of knowing nature in Japan. Udagawa was innovative, but as Federico Marcon has argued, practitioners of Dutch Studies and natural history were involved in a process of professionalization across the Tokugawa period, defining disciplines and setting themselves apart from amateurs. Together with later works from Ito Keisuke (1803–1901), Tanaka Yoshio (1838–1916), and a small group of scholars focused on the study and translation of Western books—a subdiscipline that took form in the Institute for the Study of Barbarian Books (Bansho Shirabesho) in 1856—Yoan's sutra gave new force and coherence to these changes, primarily in the form of language. As Barbara Ambros has shown, before the Botany Sutra the creatures classed as "dobutsu" were either named individually (using what scholars of classification today call "common names") or allocated into a diverse range of midlevel taxa associated with (to choose the most common examples) moral concepts of beastliness (chikusho) rooted in Buddhism, religious philosophies of being and sentience (ikimono, kigyo), and spiritual notions of divinity or monstrosity (misaki, mono no ke, bakemono). Yoan's "dobutsu" named a unifying idea that percolated through the scholarly community across the nineteenth century. It also enabled the imagination of a categorical distinction between humans and other animals akin to that at work in other modern societies.

"Dobutsu" became part of the national vernacular after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Propelled by state policy, conditioned by the flood of Western texts and ideas into the country, and fueled by broad social utility, the term was in wide usage by the 1880s. It was a classic "sticky idea": novel, concrete, easy to use, at once simple and profound. Readers encountered it in journals and newspapers, students learned it in school textbooks, and technicians put it to work on behalf of agricultural and industrial development (shokusan kogyo), which targeted animal resources as well as human and mechanical work. By the late 1880s, the "animal" was commonly understood within an encompassing notion of "nature" (most often shizen or tennen) whose nomenclatorial and ideological consolidation tracked many of the same pathways and dynamics. In the most basic terms, animals and nature remain locked in this relationship today. By the end of the Meiji period in 1912, the vision of the world outlined in the Botany Sutra was widely accepted as common sense. In this way, Udagawa's short, hybrid tract—at once sutra and science—was an important document in the development in Japan of the basic distinction between nature and culture (or the nonhuman and the human) that historians of science such as Bruno Latour use to mark the threshold of modernity.

Tokyo's Ueno Zoological Garden was built on that threshold. It was a consciously constructed mechanism for the separation of people from other animals, an anthropological machine whose primary purpose was to help create a certain kind of person—curious, docile, productive, and "civilized"—through the didactic exhibition of live animals. Opened as part of the country's new National Museum complex in Ueno Park in 1882, the Ueno Zoo rendered Udagawa's animal kingdom into an object of spectacle and difference. In doing so, the zoo helped to popularize the idea that the Japanese people stood apart from the animals on the other side of the bars, separate from the nature that those creatures were made to represent.

The carefully ordered displays of the dobutsuen—or "animal park," as the new institution was called—harnessed the taxonomic abstraction of Yoan's dobutsu to something real, observable, and undeniably present: living, breathing, moving animals. In the process, the zoological garden helped give rise to the broader sense of a natural order that existed apart from (and prior to) the representational work of the zoo itself, and thus apart from the everyday realities of politics, culture, and historical (as opposed to evolutionary or geological) time. It then put that vision of the natural world—rendered into an exhibition meant to educate and fascinate—to work in the service of a host of political and social goals. This chapter is about that transformation, its implications, and the creation of the Ueno Zoo. It takes us from Japan's first state-run museum and menagerie, through the Ueno Imperial Zoo and the European and American zoos that inspired it, and into the politicized world of social evolution in modernizing Japan, where the figure of the animal became an inescapable reminder of Japan's impossible struggle to detach "civilization" from the natural world. It shows, in sum, how ecological modernity altered attitudes and how, in turn, that transformation changed what it meant to be human in the age of "civilization and enlightenment."


According to one visitor, the most popular exhibit at Japan's first museum was neither a graceful Buddhist statue nor a piece of fine porcelain. Rather, it was a dancing Ezo Bear and his two Ainu keepers. The men—bearded indigenes from the northern island of Hokkaido—traveled to Tokyo together with their animal charge as part of the country's first state-run survey of natural and cultural treasures, carried out just three years after the Meiji Restoration. The trio performed (and may have lived) in a small building at the end of the visitor path that guided patrons through the grounds of the Yamashita Museum, a collection of exhibition halls, warehouses, offices, animal pens, gardens, and greenhouses located just inside of the Yamashita Gate at the edge of the Imperial Palace. The museum was home to the nation's first state-run menagerie, the Yamashita Animal Hall, or Dobutsukan, a large wooden hall whose seventy-plus inhabitants ranged from badgers and bears to dogs and dormice. The land that held the museum was previously home to a residence owned by the Satsuma Clan, one of the main drivers of the Restoration, and after the museum closed in 1881 it became the site of the Rokumeikan, or "Deer-Cry Pavilion," a government-run guesthouse and ballroom where Japanese leaders famously danced to the tune of Western-style cultural diplomacy.

The Yamashita Museum was the first institution in Japan to be called a "museum," or hakubutsukan. The appellation underlines the strong connections between Meiji-era scientific and exhibitionary culture—the institutions at the center of Japan's ecological modernity—and natural history of the sort practiced by Udagawa. Scholars have often placed Dutch Studies (rangaku) at the start of Japan's scientific modernization because of its explicit connections with the West (the Dutch were the only Western country permitted to trade with Japan during most of the Tokugawa era), but Dutch Studies developed out of the broader discipline of honzogaku, which in turn took its name from the Chinese study of materia medica (bencaoxue) in the early years of the Tokugawa era. China preceded the West in the Tokugawa imaginary, and so too did honzogaku precede (and prefigure) aspects of rangaku. By the midnineteenth century "honzogaku" had become a terminological victim of its own disciplinary openness, however. As the medical aspects of natural history were first folded into Dutch Studies and then, after the Restoration, further bifurcated into Western-style (igaku) and Chinese-style (kanpo) medicine, "natural history" came to be known as "hakubutsugaku," or the "study of myriad things." Hakubutsugaku connoted a general interest in the material world rather than the close study of materia medica. The hakubutsukan ("hall of myriad things") derived its name from this hakubutsugaku.

The museum was more than a showcase. It was an epistemological workshop, a place where categories were tested and created through the separation of artifacts and animals. The staff at Yamashita was consciously engaged in a process of taxonomic innovation in the service of the state. Items arrived in Tokyo (itself recently renamed from Edo) two-by-two from each of the nation's new prefectures (ken). One of each kind was slated for the Vienna World Exposition (held from May to November of 1873), the other destined for domestic display. When they arrived they were sorted, labeled, and prepared for exhibition by technicians who were themselves only recently reclassified, transformed by government fiat from members of Tokugawa Japan's status system (mibunsei)—which separated the ruling samurai from peasants, artisans, merchants, and outcastes based on birth and occupation—into imperial subjects. Each subject was now theoretically equal before the emperor, but "liberation" came at a cost. Individuals were laid bare to imperial law with the eradication of status-based institutions, and hierarchy was reinscribed in the past tense: samurai became "former samurai," outcastes became "former outcastes," and so on. With people and animals alike, the modern taxonomic revolution was as much an exercise of power—of opening people and things up to change (kaika)—as it was the realization of any ideal of "civilization" (bunmei).


Excerpted from The Nature of the Beasts by Ian Jared Miller. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Ian Jared Miller teaches Japanese history at Harvard University.

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