Episode 107 – Dr. Ian Miller (Harvard)

Originally published on April 26, 2019
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Ian Miller, Professor of History at Harvard University. Dr. Miller is the author of The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo, published by the University of California Press in 2013 as well as co-editor of Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, published by the University of Hawai’i Press in 2013. Dr. Miller, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Ian Miller: Oh, I’m so pleased to be here, Tristan. This is a really remarkable series, and I’m so impressed with the scope that you’ve offered to your listeners. And really, it’s a who’s who of early and mid-career scholars, so I’m flattered to be involved, thank you.

TG: Amidst all of those people, I haven’t had anybody talking about environmental history very much, and you are certainly at the forefront of this environmental turn in Japanese history. So, could you tell us about what is environmental history? How does it differ from other forms of history and what kind of new questions does it pose of the past?

IM: From late in my graduate training, I’ve understood myself as wanting to contribute to what we might think of as an environmental turn in the field, and that is building on work by Conrad Totman, Brett Walker, Julia Adeney Thomas and a host of others. Fred Notehelfer has a couple of early and excellent articles on related topics as well, and I somewhat anticipated this question when we started talking about the Meiji at 150 series and what it might mean. I’ll begin to address the question through that, thinking about what it means to commemorations, anniversaries and so on, what sorts of chronologies do we wish to elevate? What kinds of dates and events matter for us? What’s worth commemorating is really the question when we come around to these kinds of anniversaries. And one thing that happens with history, a truism about what we do is that the past changes with its present.

For me really, what distinguishes our present moment from the vast scope of human history that has preceded us is that we’ve now entered a time when humanity has begun to fundamentally alter not just our local environments and ecologies (that is the settings in which we pursue our everyday lives and engaging with the material world in those ways), but we’ve also began to alter global climate, and that is “something new under the sun” to quote eminent environmental historian John McNeill. For the first time in history, we are the first generations to be consciously aware that we are actively undermining the material conditions of human life thriving and well-being. And that is something new that really requires us to think differently about time and about what it means to practice history and the humanities more broadly.

TG: In environmental history, we keep hearing this term “Anthropocene.” So what exactly is the Anthropocene? And how has the Anthropocene fit into your own historical research?

IM: As with any turn in the field, these turns begin to generate jargon, terminology, new concepts, and so on, and the Anthropocene is one of them. It’s formulated quite some time ago by a climate scientist who went on to win a Nobel Prize. Roughly speaking, it translates as “the age of the human” or “the age of man,” and the argument there is precisely the logic that I’ve laid out  just a moment ago that humanity’s become a global environmental actor in a new way. In particular, the Anthropocene is working with geological time scales, the ways that we have segmented not just human history, but the history of the earth. And so, the argument would be for something like the Anthropocene or “the age of man” that we have initiated a new geological epoch, where the dominant force is not the movement of continental plates and so on, it’s not geological forces, but rather humanity.

What’s interesting is that there’s actually a Japan connection here. So, I’m no geologist and neither am I a historian of that particular line of scientific inquiry, but geologists want a golden spike. They want an identifiable moment in the Earth’s past that is global, where they can mark a shift from one era to the next. We think about this as being associated with the extinction of ants and so on, and usually, they’re working in timescales that are not reckoned not only in thousands of years, but in hundreds of thousands and even millions and even hundreds of millions of years. In the case of the Anthropocene, the real question might be when is there a moment that is universally recognized as marking the advent of “the age of man”? And it seems to be that probably, the best candidate for this would be the initiation of the Nuclear Age, the Atomic Age, because once we begin to test those weapons in the American southwest, and put them to work with horrific consequences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what we find is that the fallout from those explosions can be found quite literally everywhere on the planet.

And so, if some race of outer space aliens arrived on this planet in one hundred million years and begin to excavate, they would be able to mark the moment when we first exploded nuclear weapons and those isotopes moved up into the global atmosphere. So, there’s a Japan connection, really, to this discussion of the Anthropocene that’s quite interesting and worth exploring in greater detail. The Anthropocene is an overheated (pun intended, I guess) kind of discourse right now. Those of us in environmental history are debating what it means and so on, and its implications.

In some ways, I worry that the term itself has become a distraction, and perhaps, we can return to that question later, but historians in a variety of fields (including our own) have really flagged the question of agency as being associated in particular with the Anthropocene. That is, if we begin to understand ourselves as living in a global age where humanity as a whole (to use Dipesh Chakrabarty’s excellent writing on this topic), humanity as a species has become a global agent or force, then how do we really think about reconciling those global dynamics with more traditional humanistic questions around agency and action and influence? That is, how do you write a history that can account for the global implications, but also comes down to the level of the individual, where we can begin to get a tangible sense for our impact on the world, and also our capacity to change that world or maybe alter the course of what is to come. All history is present-focused and future-focused, but environmental history takes those charges on perhaps more explicitly and directly than many other fields. And so in that way, it’s quite interesting and engaging, but it gets into some very messy questions as well, predictions and so on notwithstanding.

In terms of my particular rift on the the term “Anthropocene,” I’ve used it in several of my publications, but the more I’ve been working on this, the more I’ve come to realize that historians have had a word for this all along (that is, those of us practicing today). We call it “modernity,” and we’ve been talking about the modern, in the case of Japan, from the Meiji era forward. Really, what the present asks of us and the Anthropocene moment asks of us is to rethink what we mean by “the modern,” and what counts as the proper concern of history, and really, what defines “modernity” as a whole.

For me, increasingly, I’ve come to understand modernity in material and energetic terms as opposed to through direct association with capitalism, for example, or the rise of the nation-state. Those phenomena are interesting, important and worth recognition along the line that you’ve initiated through this excellent podcast series, that is Meiji as a political anniversary that we’re celebrating: a coup d’état in 1868 that then initiates shifting governments and a revolution through bureaucratic means and the expansion of a capitalistic economy in Japan as it links into global dynamics much more explicitly. For me, what I’ve come to realize as I’ve been working through these environmental questions is that perhaps as much or more than those traditional questions within the field, we need to be focused on what distinguishes our current moment, and that is the rise of a carbon-intensive energy economy. So that shift is part of why I’m uneasy, in some ways, with our celebration of Meiji, and what I think is great about the anniversary is that it asks us to return to these questions, and ask: What’s changed? How do we do things differently? And really, not incremental change in how we practice history and the humanities, but really, the revolutionary shift in method and approach and questions that could be required as we seek to come to terms with the Anthropocene, with this new notion of modernity as a carbon-intensive global energy regime.

You can go all the way back to the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853 and the return in 1854. When we look at those marvelous prints that so many of us use in our classes and so on that John Dower has published online, on the MIT Visualizing Cultures website, for example, on black ships and samurai, we go back and look at those woodblock prints of Perry’s ships arriving. And what stands out for me more than anything else is the black smoke that’s billowing out of the steamships that are arriving in Edo Bay, and that that is the truly revolutionary aspect of the changes that will come to my eye as I look as things as an environmental historian concerned with climate change rather than as a cultural historian that I was trained to be in graduate school, interested in political change, consumer culture and so on. Really, what I think environmental history and the notion of the Anthropocene, environmental humanities as a more encompassing field might require us to do is really rethink how we look at the past, what we wish to commemorate, and in my case, what we talk about and what we haven’t talked about when we talk about modernity in Japan.

TG: And so if we take this perspective of environmental history as looking at this interaction between humans and their environment, how does this change in Japan during the Meiji period?

IM: We might think about (just to start with) energy as an encompassing category of thought, and then we can talk about more specific iterations. I’ll try to keep it short, but when Perry arrives in 1853, 1854, the vast majority of the energy – the primary energy – used in the Japanese archipelago is coming from what we might call biomass. That is wood products, charcoal, human and animal labour, and so on. It’s coming out of what the historian of the British Industrial Revolution Tony Wrigley has called “the organic energy regime.” So, it has its roots in the natural world and the natural environment. What beings to shift slowly, not in an immediate sense with Perry’s arrival, but the source of energy begins to move underground. It begins to move into coal mines down in Kyūshū and up eventually in Hokkaidō, up in Tōhoku and Fukushima for example. That transformation that is, at first, slow and uncertain and then very fast and seemingly pre-determined, as if the future is right there and self-evident, is really quite interesting to look at and it happens, given the slow beginning point, seemingly all at once.

By 1900-1901 (depending on how you look at these things), the majority of the primary energy used in the Japanese archipelago is coming from coal. It’s coming from carbon, “fossilized sunshine” to use the memorable phrase of the historian Alfred Crosby. That is, millions of years of biomass that had been compressed into carbon that then can be exploited very quickly, and so that transformation is really fundamental. And it’s behind so many of the dynamics that we think about when we think about what defines Meiji and when we talk about Meiji, as one of my advisors Carol Gluck has made eminently clear, we’re always talking about modernity one way or the other. Behind the modernity that so many of us associate with Meiji, we begin to blur it in some of the best new work (in your series actually) begins to really frame Meiji in a longue durée, and I find that to be really exciting, where my works wanted to go after my first book. But then I began to dig into the energy stuff, and I realized indeed, something is changing quite radically, where I’d hope to find continuity. And that something is the energy regime, so that’s what’s changing in Meiji for me most immediately: the shift from an organic energy regime to a carbon-intensive energy regime centered around coal.

That remains in place until roughly 1960 or 1961. So the decade after World War II (when the Japanese economy enters the so-called “miraculous phase”) is also the decade from ‘60, ‘61 forward, where Japan really, more fully transitions to an oil economy. Oil had been used on the archipelago when there was even a brief oil boom up in Akita during the Meiji era, but oil moves to the centre of the energy economy in ‘60 and ‘61. It had been used as a reference in the archipelago for quite some time, but mainly for military purposes. That is, the shift to an oil navy was a crucial aspect of Japan’s mid-century military development, but also a real spur and spark for the conflict that we variously labelled the Greater East Asian War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Pacific War, or more commonly, World War II. So, one way to bring energy very quickly to the centre of discussions of what we talk about as historians is to recognize that World War II in the Pacific was an oil war, and Japan and its military and political leaders are very concerned with what we might now today call “energy autonomy” or “energy security.” And so, the rapid expansion into Southeast Asia is in no small measure (in fact, mainly) the pursuit of the violent effort to secure oil resources because the Japanese archipelago itself is oil poor.

Japan today is the world’s third largest economy measured by GDP, and that economy imports something like 93-97% of its primary energy sources. It’s hugely dependent on overseas energy trade, on Middle Eastern oil and so on. And so again, that shift that I want to suggest is initiated when Perry arrives and then amplifies very quickly, continues to define Japan’s place in the world, continues to structure and shape the Japanese economy, and really has made this way of life that we call “modernity,” “modan,” or “kindai” possible. It’s less capital and capitalism, which has been our main concern in the field, the debates on various understandings of capitalism and its implications. For my money, it more so carbon and carbon energy that defines modernity in Japan, and you can see that globally for example when you begin to look at, really, real communist and socialist regimes such as the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and the United States at the height of the Cold War are both petro powers. They’re dominated by oil-based economies, and we continue to see Russia in a post-Soviet moment exercising an outsized amount of influence on the global stage in part because they can lay claim to such substantial reserves of carbon energy sources: most immediately today, natural gas that is crucial to Western European economies and everyday life and well-being.

TG: This research that you’re doing on the electrification of Tokyo, I understand this is part of this Mellon Foundation New Directions Grant.

IM: Yes.

TG: Could you tell us a bit about that (I mean, when we think of modernity as being electric, especially in a place like Tokyo)?

IM: Yes. Electricity fascinates me. I’d actually started out wanting to write an environmental history of Tokyo. There’s this wonderful book called Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon, and it looks at Chicago through an environmental lens, and looking at how various commodity chains knit Chicago into the American frontier and transformed the frontier, and in the process, transformed the city. And I thought: Oh my gosh. I really want to look at Tokyo and do something similar. Then I went off to the field. This is my second book project: Tokyo Electric is what I’m calling it right now.

When I went off to the field, I quickly realized that energy, more than any other question, really could dominate the ways that I’ve wanted to understand Tokyo, and really shaped and defined the course of the history that interested me. Electricity is interesting in a variety of ways, not least because it’s fascinating and bright and engaging (it lets me do cultural history and bring it into conversation with environmental concerns and the history of labour, for example), but it’s also a neat way for us to talk about the broader energy economy. Unlike, for example, steam, which is mainly derived from thermal power through the burning of coal and later, oil and natural gas, electricity comes from a wide variety of sources.

So if we begin to look at this thing that we think of as consummately modern – bright lights, big cities – and begin to follow those calories or Watts, follow the current back through the electrical system, we find ourselves moving back into the natural world very quickly and not to one single place. And so, I began to look at the history of energy, thinking this might be a neat way to understand the growth of Tokyo and so on. One of the things I quickly discovered: I hoped to write my second book without ever using the the term “modern.” This was a prompt from my advisor Greg Pflugfelder who in graduate seminar, turned to us and asked us (we were looking at one particular book): “What would this book look like if we removed the term “modern” or its synonyms from the text? What would look different? How would we understand the world differently?” and so on, and I thought this was a wonderful thought experiment. I’m going to try and pursue a project where I’m not going to talk about “modernity.” I quickly then, as we’ve discussed on electricity and energy, discovered that one of the ways that we talk about the modern is Harry Harootunian, for example, and the invocation of coeval modernity. That is modernity that is developing globally along a roughly shared chronology let’s say, while manifesting through radical unevenness, through development of the work on capital and capitalism and industrialization.

One of the things that I quickly discovered at least is when we look at the history of electricity at least, Japanese modernity indeed is right there with the development of North America and Western Europe. And so, Japan electrifies very very quickly. The Tokyo Electric Light Company, the precursor of the company that has become TEPCO (the owner of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant) is founded in 1883, something like only three or four years after the creation of the Edison Illuminating Company in the United States. That chronology matches up to a very surprising degree, and it’s not a coincidence that they’re looking at Edison’s work, and indeed, several Japanese engineers go over and work with him in New Jersey. And lest we think that I’m somehow putting the Americans ahead of everyone else, it’s worth recognizing that the British, the French and the Germans were in some ways ahead of the curve, so I don’t want to overstate the synchronicity of this chronology, but it is interesting to think that Japan and the U.S, at least in terms of electrical development, are beginning at roughly the same time.

By the 1930s, let’s say 1929 as a turning point – the advent of the decade of the ‘30s were the contradictions of capitalism becoming evident, and we see a turn into fascism in Japan – urban Japan has electrified to a really stunning degree. And I’ve been questioning the date I’m about to give you, and I would love an email from someone if they find better information, but it’s according to the materials I’ve been digging through, looking at some of the nenpyō in Japan and so on. By 1933, electrical lights are found in something like 44% of homes in England. The advent of the Industrial Revolution is an English invention, coming out of coal and its manipulation and use for generating steam power. That same year (1933), the U.S, Edison’s America, 68% of the homes are electrified. Germany: 85%. That same year in 1933, according to the data that I’ve been working with and I really keep on hoping in some ways that I’ll be able to complicate it, but it looks to be the case that electrification in Japan tops 90% nationally and nears something like 100% in all major cities.

So, this is not to say that we get a fully electrified culture and society, but the access to electrical power in Japan is shockingly widespread, which I found to be fascinating. And so, the discourse that we all question in our graduate seminars and when we lecture about the exceptional nature of Japanese development or on the more positive side (meaning arguments that have tended to be sustained by the field), coeval modernity and synchronist development; when we begin to look at electricity at least in certain ways, – and this is not to neglect the contradictions and inequalities that come into being with this brightly illuminated culture and society – Japan actually fits some of the broader narratives but in new ways, and in certain ways, empirically. So, we can give numbers and we can give physical reality to some of the abstractions that come up in our lectures and textbooks and so on.

I mean, one of the realities of these energy transitions as we think about them, the movement from organic energy to carbon energy, for example, is that they’re not merely energetic. They’re always already environmental, and the environmental costs are really substantial and damaging and manifest themselves in fundamentally unequal ways. And so, that dynamic is also something that really interests me and begins to get at contemporary questions today about such things as environmental justice and the right that all of us should have (and I use the normative phrase intentionally) to live out our lives in a healthful, nurturing, thriving, safe environment.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode: 

Ian Miller, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, April 26, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-107-dr-ian-miller-harvard/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.