WEAI Author Q&A: Federico Marcon’s “The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japanpublished by the University of Chicago Press. The book’s author is Federico Marcon, an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University. In his book, Professor Marcon chronicles how, between the early seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth century, the field of natural history in Japan separated itself from the discipline of medicine, produced knowledge that questioned the traditional religious and philosophical understandings of the world, and developed into a system (called honzōgaku) that rivaled Western science in complexity—and then seemingly disappeared. Or did it? The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan recounts how Japanese scholars developed a sophisticated discipline of natural history analogous to Europe’s but created independently, without direct influence, and argues convincingly that Japanese natural history succumbed to Western science not because of suppression and substitution, as scholars traditionally have contended, but by adaptation and transformation.

We thank Professor Marcon for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

How did you first learn about and become interested in honzōgaku in Japan’s history?

I first became interested in this field of learning quite early, during a period of study in Japan between 1999 and 2001, before I applied to Columbia University’s Ph.D. program. I was fascinated by the lavish illustrations of plants and animals I first admired in a Jinbōchō’s used bookseller, Toriumi Shobō, that specialized in naturalistic publications—a dusty place on the third floor of an unsteady building crammed with birdwatcher manuals, animal encyclopedias, botanical textbooks, and so on. However, I started to seriously think at honzōgaku as a possible topic of research quite late. Initially I wanted to write a dissertation on the social history of scholars in Tokugawa Japan and focusing on the formation and eventual (apparent) disappearance of a discipline seemed to me a good strategy to approach such a gigantic issue. I remember my friend Ian Miller supported this idea from the start.

Can you give some examples of how modern Japanese science incorporates honzōgaku?

This is a difficult question to answer in brief. The first generation of Japanese biologists, in the early decades of the Meiji period, had all received an early training in honzōgaku. I don’t spend too much time on this in the book, but the best source to see the continuation of honzōgaku styles and methods are the notebooks of many Meiji biologists like, for example, Minakata Kumagusu and Shirai Mitsutarō. Tokugawa honzōgaku was soon disavowed by Meiji intellectuals, who were eager to show their modern attitude by abandoning their Edo past. So, at the end honzōgaku had a double destiny: on the one hand, it lost its name (honzōgaku) but translated many of its practices, institutional framework (i.e., state sponsorship), and goals (economic growth) into the language of the new sciences (seibutsugaku, “biology,” hakubutsugaku, “natural history,” shokubutsugaku, “botany,” dōbutsugaku, “zoology,” etc.); on the other, it kept its name at the cost of two century and a half of Tokugawa developments and became the label of an antiquarian movement that aimed to recover the traditional knowledge of “authentic” honzōgaku, now polemically antagonistic to the modernization process and its allegedly “foreign” origins.

What kinds of sources and archives did you consult in researching this book? What kind of challenges did you encounter in researching this subject?

Working on a topic that stretches across different fields and styles (social history, intellectual history, history of science, etc.) presents a series of difficulties that ranges from the choice of your analytical toolkit to the selection of material to focus in the final version of the book. This is true for many other topics, but the greatest challenge of honzōgaku was that the large majority of secondary sources were written by former scientists who wanted to rediscover a tradition of nature-study that was autochthonous of Japan but whose major concern was to correct all mistaken assumptions of that discipline from the perspective of modern science. This literature was fundamental for my initial navigation of the field, but soon I decided to just read a number of Tokugawa manuals and encyclopedias and come up with my own narrative that addressed different questions from those of Japanese historians. I was particularly lucky to find in the collection of Waseda University Library most of what I was looking for. A second challenge was that many of those texts where handwritten manuscripts, but the help of my Waseda advisor, professor Fukaya Katsumi, who otherwise was utterly uninterested in my project, was indispensible to acquire the rudiments of kuzushiji deciphering.


During your research, did any of your findings surprise you or change the way you thought about the history of thought in Japan during this era?

Yes, I confess that as my research proceeded, I had to readjust my views on the intellectual world of Tokugawa Japan quite often. First, I was at first really surprised to find so many prominent scholars among those who dealt with natural history in the period. Second, I was surprise how marginal in honzōgaku texts were information from Western books. At first I thought of honzōgaku as a field close to rangaku, or Dutch Studies. I hope that in my book I was able to persuasively demonstrate how late in the period Western natural history began to have a substantial influence in the discipline. It was not until Siebolt, in the 1820s, that European natural history started to affect the research methods, the forms of presentation, and the classificatory system of natural knowledge in Japan. Third, I was quite surprised to find a discipline that, autonomous as it was from European “philosophy of nature”, was similarly sustained by the state for its economic importance. If we juxtapose the writings of Carl Linneaus with the texts left by many honzōgaku scholars, we find similar conceptualizations of the “dominion of nature” quite at odds with Meiji ideas of Japanese’s “love for nature.” In a sense, I hope my book will be seen as the prehistory of later developments that scholars like Julia Thomas, Brett Walker, Ian Miller, Robert Stolz, and others have written about. It is a case of “surprising convergence” that I hope will interest historians from different areas and fields.

How did Japan’s natural geography affect the development of its natural science?

In the introductory chapter of the book I state that I wanted to write a non-reductionist critical materialist history of ideas—a quite oxymoronic expression that emphasized my intention to write a history that showed how cognitive practices and ideas are products of the material conditions of their producers, where “material” here means both material proper (i.e., geographical, environmental) and social. So, of course Japan’s natural geography affected the development of honzōgaku, but we cannot reduce the historical development of honzōgaku to the natural geography of Japan—as, for example, some studies on resource scarcity do. Tokugawa Japan was a country rich of vegetal and animal diversity, but it was the social, political, and economic developments contingent and specific of Tokugawa Japan that favored the growth of a specialized field of nature study.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding about Japan’s history?

Although I followed all requirements of archival and philological precision that East Asian studies publications require, I confess that I wrote this book for an ideal reader who is not an expert in the field of East Asian Studies. Of course, the book takes issue with a number of questions that characterize the historiographical debate on early modern Japan, such as the problem of change vs. continuation after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the question of cultural consumption and the alleged development of a “public sphere” in early modern Japan, the professionalization of scholars, the role of samurai elites in the economic growth of Tokugawa Japan, and so on. But the theoretical concerns that sustained the writing of the book did not originate in my “home discipline,” East Asian Studies. My theoretical questions that motivated me are more general, and I tried to address them from the particular perspective of Japanese honzōgaku: what is the complex dialectical relation between ideas and society? Or, more precisely, what kind of social dynamics determine the development of specific forms of knowledge, which, in turn, influences the changing structure of that society? What are the relation between knowledge, economic growth, modernization and the dominion of nature? In addressing these and other questions through the adventures of honzōgaku scholars I maintain that there are no universal answers, which have instead to be searched for in historical specificity. I like to think of my own method of historical research as a combination of material history of ideas and conceptual history of things.