The Birth of the Kagakusha: aims and objectives

There is a body of work (e.g. Cantor et al,2004; Lightman, 2007) outlining how in Europe public experiments, popular writing, and other activities not only helped to establish the idea of science as a practice and a means of acquiring knowledge about the world, it also helped to establish the social category of practitioners – scientists -defining what they did, their role in society, and the right to speak as experts in the public square. However nations beyond Europe and America came to this developing process in a different context – without the prior tradition of natural philosophy, and with the explicit sense of the knowledge base and surrounding set of institutions as foreign in origin. Thus, the first Japanese scientists were faced not only with the challenge of defining and justifying their position in domestic society, they also had to make transnational links to access bodies of knowledge, and the work they did to popularise science had a distinctly foreign dimension.

The first Japanese to engage with modern Western science were the Rangakusha, scholars operating largely outside of the institutions of Tokugawa Japan to study knowledge introduced via the Dutch trade mission in Nagasaki. By the late 19th century a new term, Rigakusha, had emerged, reflecting the growing institutionalisation of scientific knowledge and practice and the transformation of the practice from particularistic ‘Dutch knowledge’ (Rangaku) to the universal ‘science’ (Rigaku, and later Kagaku). However, for much of the late nineteenth century, science suffered from a reputation that it was a vocation for “second rate people” (Yamagata 1889: 1), so scientists had to work still further to enhance their status and legitimate their work. They did this by writing in the growing mass-market periodicals in an attempt to convince the public of the relevance of science to their daily lives, and by demonstrating the practical use of experimental science for national priorities such as industry and the military (Kim 1995, p.386). By the early twentieth century, science had a clearly defined position in the public sphere, with scientists as recognised experts and public intellectuals, and events such as Albert Einstein’s visit to Japan in 1922 sparking a popular boom in modern physics.

The purpose of this workshop is to consider the emergence of the scientist as a category of professional in Japanese society, considering questions such as:

  • How did the category of ‘scientist’ develop in Japan?
  • How did Japanese scientists establish a position for themselves in their society and public sphere?
  • How important was their work in communicating to popular audiences for validating the significance of their profession?
  • How did Japanese scientists legitimate their work and build their status domestically?
  • How did Japanese scientists negotiate the relationship between their positions as national figures and as participants in transnational endeavours?
  • Did the emergence of the category of scientist in Japanese society mirror European examples, or were there significant differences?
  • What role was there for others– politicians, humanistic scholars, journalists and so on in this process?

Cantor, Geoffrey et al., Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Lightman, Bernard, Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007),
Shapin, Steven, & Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air Pump, Hobbes, Boyle and the experimental life, (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1985)
Yamagata, Teisaburō, ‘Kōmyō fūku no gen’ya’ (The field of great deeds and wealth), Shōnen’en, Vol. 1, No. 7 (1889), pp. 1-4.

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