History of Japanese Invention

I think it’s a little difficult to enjoy making the Gakken Otona no Kagaku kits without also developing some kind of an interest in Japanese history. The exact origins of the Japanese people themselves are unclear, but it looks like there were at least two groups to discover the 800+ island chain that makes up the country. One from Russia down into Hokkaido (called the Ainu people), and the other from Korea up into Kyushu (the main stock for the Japanese line). The four biggest, most-populated islands, are (from biggest to smallest): Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikkoku.

Eras: Meiji to Heiwa
The Japanese calendar system is based on the name of the Emperor, and the numbering starts when the new Emperor takes the crown. The current era is Heisei, and the year 2012 AD is also Heisei 24. While there were hundreds of Emperors, and therefore too many eras to count, the ones we are most likely to encounter are Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), Showa (1926-1989) and Heisei (1989-present).

The Shogun versus the Emperor: The Tokugawa Shogunate
Around 794 AD, the islands of Japan were still largely unexplored and a number of families were attempting to establish control over the others. The Emperor had a military commander, entitled the shogun, who was responsible for leading battles in the Emperor’s name against his rivals. Eventually, the Shogun had amassed enough power to wrest control of the country from the Emperor, relegating the position to figurehead status. In 1603, Ieyasu Tokugawa established himself as Shogun and created an empire called the Tokugawa Shogunate, where his family inherited the title of Shogun from generation to generation, for the next 200 years, over the now-united country. However, by the early 1800’s, the family had weakened and the country was ruled in fact by the Shogun’s advisers, who themselves had gotten weak and corrupt. Then, in 1854, the American Commodore Perry arrived in Yokohama port to force the country’s borders open to trade with the outside world. This precipitated the eventual overthrow of the Shoganate, restoring rule over the country to the Emperor, and the introduction of western science and politics during the period called the “Meiji Restoration”.

The Capitals: Nara, Kyoto, Edo
Around 710 AD, Japan’s earliest capital was established in what is now Nara, on the western side of the Honshu island. In 794, the capital was moved to present-day Kyoto, where it was the home of the Emperor. When Ieyasu Tokugawa became Shogun, he moved the capital to the eastern side of Hoshu to the town of Edo, while the Emperor stayed in Kyoto. This period was called the “Edo-era”, which officially ended with the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In 1868, the Meiji Emperor moved to Edo, and with the restructuring of the government that occurred with the Meiji Restoration, Edo was renamed to “The East Capital” (Kyoto being the “West Capital”), i.e. – “Tokyo”.

Introduction of Science and Culture
From very early on, Japan had off-and-on trade and diplomatic exchanges with China and Korea. Envoys returning from China brought with them the principles of written language, art and medicine. Periodically, things would turn violent and Japan would close its borders, giving Japanese natives time to incorporate their own influences into those foreign activities. In the 1500’s, Portugal opened trade with Japan, bringing with them wood block printing, mechanical time pieces, ocean navigation and firearms. Unfortunately, this also included the arrival of Jesuit missionaries, and the destabilizing influence of the Christian faith causing Tokugawa to close the borders again and to condemn Japanese Christians to death. Again, left to themselves, Japanese inventors and doctors turned the press, clocks and rifles into Japanese products. Finally, Commodore Perry came in and opened up the floodgates. With the beginning of the Meiji period, Japan discovered western magazines and newspapers, science, chemistry, government and military science. Kyushu, with its early rebellion against the Shogun, took to learning how to make cannons, and various commercial items. After one point, there was a brief battle against British ships in the bay next to Kagoshima City in southern Kyushu, and the larger British guns demolished the city, causing the Japanese to study harder to avoid future humiliations. After the Meiji Restoration, the Satsuma family (in present-day Kagoshima) sent a number of young men to Europe for studies and to bring back whatever they could learn.

Broadly speaking, Japanese science history can be broken up into the Edo era (roughly 1603 to 1855), Meiji period (roughly 1855 to 1912), pre-WW II (1912 to 1942), post-War (1945-1960’s) and modern era (1960’s to now).

Edo-era: Static Electricity, Time Pieces, Mechanical Dolls, Telescopes
Meiji-era: Newspapers, Manga and Anime, Cannon, mass-production, DC/AC Electricity Generation
pre-WW II: Military Science, Naval Warfare, Trains, Cars
post-War: Reconstruction, starting base for electronics, recreation of mass-production
Modern-era: Electronics, Vehicles, Computers, Robotics, Anime and Manga

Inventors
For the most part, early invention tended to revolve around cultural and agricultural activities, such as with the production of ceramics, buildings and farm tools. It’s only after western items get introduced and the doors to trade close that we see science and technology-based inventors stepping forward to improve on what they have. So, there’s little ORIGINAL revolutionary invention in Japan prior to the modern era. When we look at the Gakken mooks, the majority of the foundational science is laid down by the likes of Galileo, and da Vinci. But, there are several kits derived specifically from Japanese inventions. Three of the top Japanese inventors that I am aware of currently are:

Gennai Hiraga (1728-1780). Edo-era inventor that dabbled in static electricity, physics and medicine. The Gakken Static Electricity Generator is based on his design.

Hisashige Tanaka (1799-1881). Late-Edo, Meiji-era inventor, and co-founder of what would later become Toshiba Corporation. The Gakken Tea Carrying Windup Doll is based on his design. While I don’t have an inventor for the device used for the Gakken Dual Pendulum Clock, Hisashige did also work with time pieces, and had invented the Myriad Year Clock.

Chuuhachi Ninomiya (1866-1936). Pre-WW II era soldier who independently developed a machine for manned flight. However, his superiors felt that airplanes were a waste of resources and refused to allow him to develop his designs.  Later research has shown that his designs really were workable.

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