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Without Nature

Thinking about the Environment in Tokugawa Japan

Federico Marcon    Princeton University, USA    

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abstract

The modern Japanese shizen 自然 was systematically used for the first time to translate the German Natur in 1889, on the occasion of a debate between Mori Ōgai and the critic Iwamoto Yoshiharu. Before the 1880s, shizen was mostly employed as an adjective or adverb meaning ‘in itself’ or ‘spontaneously’, and no other single term had a semantic capacity equivalent to ‘nature’. This does not mean that no conceptualisation of the material environment existed in pre-Meiji Japan. On the contrary, a constellation of different terms – such as tenchi, ‘heaven and earth’; sansui, ‘mountains and waters’; shinrabansho, ‘all things in the universe’; banbutsu, ‘ten thousand things’; honzō, ‘the fundamental herbs’; yakusō, ‘medicinal herbs’; sanbutsu, ‘resources’ etc. – expressed different aspects of the natural environment, material reality, natural objects, and the laws that regulated it. This paper sketches a map of these concepts, their different functions and spheres of influence. Then, it argues that the absence of a term analogous to ‘nature’ should not be perceived as a lack of premodern East Asian cultures, but it rather emphasises that it is the Western ‘nature’, in its various vernacular declinations, that nurtures troubling semantic and ideological excesses. It finally claims that the adoption and success of the modern shizen functioned as an important ideological support to Japanese modernisation.

Published
Dec. 15, 2017
Accepted
April 6, 2017
Submitted
Feb. 8, 2017
Language
EN
ISBN (PRINT)
978-88-6969-172-0
ISBN (EBOOK)
978-88-6969-171-3

Keywords: ShizenNatureTokugawa JapanHonzogaku

Copyright: © 2017 Federico Marcon. This is an open-access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction is permitted, provided that the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. The license allows for commercial use. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.