Japan’s path to becoming leaders in ‘Western’ science: an Asian perspective on science and other forms of knowledge (long version)
Post-publication note: an abridged version of this article appeared in The Conversation on 6 May 2022. The below is a longer, earlier version that contains some additional detail for the interested reader.
Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, there are a range of well-intentioned efforts to incorporate Mātauranga Māori into science. These include a pilot programme in NCEA science subjects, such as biology and chemistry, where the aspiration is to incorporate concepts from mātauranga Māori on an equal footing with science. Likewise, there are efforts to incorporate mātauranga Māori into the science curricula at some universities, and perhaps even to incorporate it into science-policy discussions.
For some, these efforts are a welcome move, while others view them as cause for concern. I wish to contribute an Asian scientific perspective on this discussion. In this article, I wish to contribute an Asian scientific perspective on this discussion.
Why do we need an Asian perspective? At the 2018 census, the diverse Asian diaspora of New Zealand made up 15.1% of the population, with about a quarter of Asians under 19, and thus of school age. Education matters to Asians as much as to other ethnicities, so conversations on national curriculum changes should include us. To that end, I believe we have a helpful perspective to offer on the current conversation. As a part-Japanese New Zealander, I offer mine in good faith: the science and education systems are relevant to us all.
First, some statistics. Universities in Asia are emerging as among the world’s best places to do science. One can get an idea of this by looking at the 2021 QS World University Rankings. In Engineering and Technology, eight of 25 of the top ranked universities are in Asia. For subjects central to our NCEA science curriculum, Asian universities are in the mix: 2/25 in Biological Sciences, 5/25 in Physics and Astronomy, with an impressive nine Asian universities in the top 25 for Chemistry. The countries represented include Singapore, China, Japan and Korea. The remainder of the lists are made up of US and European institutions. Australia and New Zealand universities are all outside the top 25 for these subjects. While one can quibble about the value of such rankings, it is clear that Asian countries are now among the very best in the world when it comes to science. While science practiced in the West has made major advances, as these statistics show, it is now global in nature and in reach. Clearly, we have come a long way.
How long a way? One side of my heritage stems from one of the most insular countries of the past 500 years, and I want to share part of the story of how we went from isolationism to scientific powerhouse. My culture has concepts that are very similar to many of those in mātauranga Māori that are being considered as part of the pilot NCEA science curriculum: concepts like whakapapa, mauri, and kaitiakitanga are familiar to us. Our traditional culture and religion are polytheistic and animistic, and we have prized traditional knowledge that has now found currency globally. Yet, in recent years our scientists have won Nobel prizes for the invention of blue-light LEDs (think smart phone screens) and lithium-ion batteries (think electric vehicles).
That formerly insular country is Japan, and the origins of modern science was not so much ‘Western’ as Dutch. I first want to relay a famous episode that encapsulates the development of modern science in Japan, and then I will return to the question of how our traditional thinking sits alongside modern science.
We start our journey in 1771 in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) at Kotsugahara (the ‘Plain of Bones’), and the execution of a convicted murderer. Several physicians, including Genpaku Sugita, went to witness the executioner dissecting the body, as was the custom in those days. Their interest in such a gruesome event was to compare knowledge from two cultures. They took with them a traditional Japanese text on anatomy derived from Chinese teachings, and a Dutch book called Ontleedkundige Tafelen, itself a translation from a book originally published in German.
The significance of this is that, at this time, and until the Americans forced Japan to open her borders in 1853, Japan was a closed country. The only westerners allowed into Japan were the Dutch, but even they were barely allowed to enter: The Dutch East India Company was allowed to trade, but was restricted to the island of Dejima, outside of Nagasaki. It was only from 1720 that foreign books were allowed into the country.
At the execution, what Sugita and his colleagues found was that the illustrations in the Dutch text were the more accurate by far, and they resolved there and then to translate it into Japanese. The resulting book, Kaitai Shinsho (A New Book on Anatomy), was published in 1774. It became the standard text on anatomy, displacing the earlier texts derived from Chinese knowledge. In doing so, Sugita and colleagues actively overturned the orthodoxy of the time, where physicians would keep their knowledge secret, teaching it only to their disciples. This endeavour is remembered in a memorial in Tokyo, with an inscription that reads,
“the source of rangaku [Dutch studies] sprang from here and served to revitalise the progress of modern Japanese science”.
Japan recognises the importance of the painstaking work that Sugita and his collaborators undertook in bringing ‘western’ scientific knowledge into its own sphere.
This episode indicates several of the most wonderful things about science. First, it can and should be shared, for the betterment of humanity. Second, it shows that any concept can be translated into any language. This is of course not trivial: Sugita documented the arduous challenge that he and his coauthors faced in his book, Rangaku Koto Hajime (The Beginning of Dutch Learning). This included needing to understand Dutch words that did not have a Japanese equivalent, and create those equivalents. Sugita’s own words best sum up the scientific mindset, when confronted with new knowledge:
“On our way home, [we] talked about the strong impression this made on us. We were ashamed of having lived so far in such a complete ignorance and served our lords day after day as physicians without the slightest idea of the true configuration of the body, whereas this should have been considered the foundation of our art”.
Sugita is known for another episode where he found he was wrong about a contemporary’s work in obstetrics. Gen’etsu Kagawa’s work Sanron, published in 1765, described his observation that a developing foetus is positioned head-down in the mother’s womb. In Kaitai Shinsho Sugita expressed skepticism about this theory, which was not documented in the Dutch texts, and was not known from traditional theory. He later discovered that Kagawa’s observations were in fact correct, and openly admitted his error. This is another wonderful thing about science. Unfortunately not all scientists are as honourable as Sugita, but over time this process means science tends to correct errors and zero in on the truth.
So how has Japan reconciled traditional thinking and modern thinking? Did it develop a different form of science? This question was raised by one of our greatest writers, Junichiro Tanizaki, in a wonderful essay, In’ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows, 1933), in which he criticises modern gaudiness and praises Japanese aesthetics, which favour darkness and shadow, inviting mysticism and imagination.
“Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of everyday gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art – would they not have suited our national temper better than they do? In fact our conception of physics itself, and even the principles of chemistry, would probably differ from that of Westerners; and the facts we are now taught concerning the nature and function of light, electricity, and atoms might well have presented themselves in different form.”
The answer from each and every instance of adoption of science across Asia, including in Japan itself, is a resounding no. Physics and chemistry are not social or aesthetic constructs; they are concerned with phenomena that exist even if our species does not. To his credit, Tanizaki, who was known to have a penchant for irony, goes on to say,
“Of course I am only indulging in idle speculation; of scientific matters I know nothing.”
But his question is worth exploring a little further, not least because of the similarities in our traditional thinking and Māori traditional knowledge. Let me tell you about a few examples that I hope shed some light on how our cultural and scientific worlds interact, but where it is also clear that they give each other space.
The first example is a wonderful little monument to microbiology at Manshu-in Monzeki, a temple in Kyoto. On the grounds is kinzuka (‘microbe mound’), which carries an inscription by Kinichiro Sakaguchi, who invented the Sakaguchi flask used for microbial culturing. The inscription reads,
To the innumerable souls of microbes
Who have dedicated and sacrificed
For the existence of humans,
We pay our deepest respect.
Here we hold a memorial service
For their soul’s rest and condolence,
Building a microbe mound.
My collaborators in Kyoto took me to Manshu-in, and I was told that all the members of the lab are expected to visit it. This offers a moment of calm and an opportunity for reflection, and is something quite unique to Japan. As an aside, when we first set up our collaboration, we also went to pray for the success of the collaboration. This resulted in a somewhat comical exchange between the lab head and one of the postdocs: the postdoc on the project refused to pray at a Buddhist temple as he is Christian! However, what is important about this story is that, by contrast, stepping inside the laboratory, one could be anywhere in the world: the methods are clearly described and standard, the equipment recognisable. And when we swap protocols, they can be—and indeed are—readily applied in either lab, albeit with a little translation required at times!
Japanese culture is unique, important, and has protocol and etiquette, but it is separate from the details of how to grow microbes or how to extract DNA from them; these things are independent of human culture.
That said, Japanese research environments often hold history as important. The microbiology lab that I am currently collaborating with has a very long history, being established in the 15th year of the Taisho era (1926). Thus, the current head, Professor Ogawa Jun, is the latest in a line of lab heads. He has on his office wall photographs of his predecessors. I can well imagine these pictures invoke a mix of emotions: one must feel pride, a weight of expectation, not to mention humility.
Some areas of their research are informed by local interest and traditional arts. One particularly interesting case for me was learning about the mechanistic basis of Aizome (traditional indigo dyeing). The process of Aizome involves extracting indigo dye by a long ~100 day oxidative fermentation of the leaves of the Japanese indigo plant, then microbial reduction under alkaline conditions, yielding leuco-indigo, which is then able to be used for dyeing cloth. The traditional process is fascinating in itself, and no artisan needs a scientist’s insights to improve their craft. However, the scientific part is understanding precisely how it is that the extraction process works. And what science can offer from that knowledge is astonishing. My colleagues have taken this well beyond just the study of how a traditional process works: they have built on this knowledge and constructed a microbial fuel cell from it. That is mind-blowing, and something only science can do.
I have touched on religion, but I want to end by diving straight in the deep end. There are times where science has come into conflict with other parts of human knowledge. For instance, Japanese are familar with the stories in the Kojiki (A Record of Ancient Matters), our oldest written text, dating to 711CE. It describes the genealogy of the Imperial family, and provides written accounts of oral tradition, stories, mythology and our kami (gods). It includes the claim that the Emperor’s genealogy is divine – tracing back to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and it details the creation stories of the Japanese archipelago. As a scientist, I understand that, if held up to the light of modern genetics, linguistics, or geology, these stories, if taken literally, are absolute nonsense. The science-informed views of the origins of the Japanese people and the lands they inhabit have superceded these as they are are based in fact. But that does not detract from the central place of these stories in Japanese culture, history and heritage. They are treasures, and they should not be conflated with science.
I can think of no better embodiment of how our national religion, Shinto, sits alongside science than to tell you a little about Emperor Akihito, who abdicated in 2019, ending the Heisei era, with his son’s ascent to the throne marking the beginning of the Reiwa era. Ancient texts are consulted in choosing an appropriate name for the new era. Although the head of our indigenous religion that states he descends from the Sun Goddess, Emperor Akihito, remarkably, is a keen ichthyologist (fish biologist), who has published numerous papers, in both Japanese and English-language scientific journals. In an article from the journal Science, where he discusses the early development of science in Japan, he writes,
“Since science pursues truth and scientific methodology puts truth to the use of mankind, it is desirable that such studies be pursued through cooperation that transcends national and other boundaries.”
It is worth reminding oneself that Emperor Akihito was a child when Tokyo was firebombed, when two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and when his father, Emperor Hirohito, was forced to recant his status as akitsumigami (a god in manifestation). It is also worth noting that Hirohito himself was also a marine biologist, having published on hydrozoans (small marine animals), and even had a marine biology laboratory at the Imperial Palace! Both have boycotted the Yasukuni shrine where war criminals have been buried, and both espouse science, despite each having been head of a religion that places them as gods among men.
This to me is the embodiment of what Stephen Jay Gould called non-overlapping magisteria, which he coined in response to Pope John Paul II stating, in a document called, ‘Truth Cannot Contradict Truth’ on the Catholic Church agreeing that the theory of evolution and Catholic doctrine on the soul entering the body were both correct. Gould argued that religion and science are non-overlapping, one dealing with facts and theories, the other with moral meaning and value, but they do nevertheless “bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border”.
I think that this is worth considering in national discussions of the interface between mātauranga Māori and science, and which parts of mātauranga belong in science teaching versus other subjects. Some parts are problematic to include in science, such as arguing for mauri in the vitalistic sense (that there is an identifiable life force), but we can of course understand the values inherent in such a term. This is true in Japanese, where the equivalent to mauri is, ki, a word that is peppered through everyday language. For instance, when we say ‘ki o tsukete’ (take care) the literal translation would be, ‘switch on your mauri’! In as much as the Japanese Imperial family descend from kami and Māori whakapapa to atua, these ideas fall outside of science. Kami don’t figure in the marine biological studies of our two past Emperors, despite their own supposed genealogical descent from kami. Japanese traditional aesthetics, as Tanizaki praises, finds beauty in shadows and what ghosts might be hidden there, but there is also beauty in what Richard Dawkins called ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’, and the illumination that science sheds on the world. They occupy different magisteria.
This point is well understood by some of the most eminent Māori thinkers. Here for example is Sir Mason Durie’s take on the relationship:
“You can’t understand science through the tools of Mātauranga Māori, and you can’t understand Mātauranga Māori through the tools of science. They’re different bodies of knowledge, and if you try to see one through the eyes of the other you mess up.”
We need to explore the interdigitating border between Mātauranga Māori and science. Some parts of the former may be compatible with the latter (as with the Aizome-inspired microbial fuel cell!), while others might be better dealt with through the lens of non-overlapping magisteria. We must also recognise the value of scientific progress, which is the legacy of Sugita Genpaku. His embrace of Dutch studies sealed the fate of much of traditional Japanese medicine – in the service of improving it.
Akihito (1992) Early cultivators of science in Japan. Science 258:578-580.
Gould (1997) Non overlapping magisteria. Natural History 106: 16-22.
Kikuchi et al. (2021) Indigo-Mediated Semi-Microbial Biofuel Cell Using an Indigo-Dye Fermenting Suspension. Catalysts 11(9):1080.
Rauika Māngai. (2020). A Guide to Vision Mātauranga: Lessons from Māori Voices in the New Zealand Science Sector.
Sakula (1985) Kaitai Shinsho: the historic Japanese translation of a Dutch anatomical text. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 78:582-587.
Tanizaki (1933) In praise of shadows.