Thinking about the Environment in Tokugawa Japan
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.