Ian J. Miller
Affiliate Professor of History of Science
Chair, Program in History and East Asian Languages (HEAL)
On leave 2018-2019
I am a historian of Japan and its modern empire whose research is primarily focused on the cultural dimensions of scientific, technological, and environmental change. I began my career as a cultural historian because I discovered, early in my graduate training at Columbia University, that my interest lay in connecting commonplace beliefs and behaviors with larger issues, often in surprising ways or through unexpected materials. I have remained dedicated to these methods because I have come to realize that histories of this sort—narratives that demonstrate meaningful connections between abstract or alienating processes and individual experience—answer an important need in an age defined by vast and rapid change. To comprehend macro-level issues such as climate change or the development of global capitalism we have to learn to see them in human-scale terms. Japan, as the world’s first non-Western industrial and imperial power, is an ideal site for this work.
My first book, The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo, pursues these goals by taking readers into East Asia’s first modern zoological garden, Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo. The zoo was a showcase for new ideas about nature; it was also a cultural machine designed to manufacture “civilized” people at a time when the distinction between humans and other animals was often synonymous with that between colonizer and colonized. Research and training for this project were supported by the Japan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the United States Department of Education (Fulbright-Hays), and the Whiting Foundation.
I am working on a new book, Tokyo Electric: Japan in the Age of Global Energy, which recasts the history of the world’s largest city—Tokyo—as a history of energy. Based on materials found in the previously closed archives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Japan’s first electric company and owner of the vexed Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, this research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Global Research, and the Social Science Research Council (via the Abe Fellowship Program). It was also the starting point for a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship (2016-2019). That course of study, framed around the question of “Carbon and its Discontents,” has led me deeper into a “material turn” focused on the creation of modern infrastructure and its political implications.
I enjoy collaborative work. My first foray resulted in Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, co-edited with Julia Adeney Thomas and Brett L. Walker. I am part of two ongoing shared projects. Co-edited with Paul Warde, the first is a set of essays aimed at the confluence of energy history and environmental history. The next, with Nadin Heé, Stefan Hübner, and Bill Tsutsui, is a series of panels and conferences on Japan’s ocean history meant to explore the nation’s engagement with the waters that define the archipelago. I also co-convene the Environment Forum at the Mahindra Humanities Center with Robin Kelsey.
Other teaching and research interests include urban history, history of science and technology, comparative imperialisms, and philosophies of action and agency. I am affiliate faculty in the Department of History of Science and chair of the graduate program in History & East Asian Languages (HEAL), housed in our Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. I urge potential graduate students interested in working with me to apply to both the Department of History and to HEAL. I regularly offer PhD general exam fields in “Modern Japanese History” and “Global Environmental History,” among other areas.
1730 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138