Asian perspective on science and other forms of knowledge

Several well-intentioned efforts are being made to include mātauranga Māori (Maori knowledge) in New Zealand science. These include a pilot program for the National Certificate of Educational Excellence (NCEA) in biology and chemistry, which equates the concepts of Mātauranga Māori with science. Other proposals aim to do the same for university and science policy curricula.

For some, these efforts are welcome, while others see them as a cause for concern. I would like to contribute from an Asian scientific point of view to this discussion.

Why is the Asian perspective relevant? First, Asians make up about 15% of Aotearoa’s population. It is important to remember that talking about science and our national education program is important to all of us.

Second, Asia is emerging as a global scientific leader. Asian universities are now in the top 25 in engineering, biology, physics and astronomy and chemistry. Although the ranking can be disputed, no Australian or New Zealand university ranks this well.

Japan – where one of my heritage countries comes from – is part of this trend, although it has been perhaps the most isolated country in 500 years. In recent years, Japanese scientists have won Nobel Prizes for inventing blue light emitting diodes (used in telephone screens) and lithium-ion batteries (used in electric cars).



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Japan is a scientific power and Japanese culture also has concepts similar to those discussed in the NCEA curriculum: whakapapa, mauri and kaitiakitanga are familiar to us. Shinto, the local religion of Japan, is polytheistic and animistic and, like Maori culture, ours has also found a global currency (think judo, manga, haiku).

Important to New Zealand’s national conversation, as emerging as scientific leaders, Japan and other Asian countries struggle with how modern science and traditional knowledge systems interact. As such, I believe that Asians can offer a useful perspective, and I offer my good faith.

Japan and “Western” science

Let’s look at the origins of modern science in Japan, which was not as Western as Dutch.

Our history begins in 1771 in Kotsugahara (The Plain of Bones). Doctors attended the execution of the killer to watch the executioner cut the body, as was the custom in those days. Their interest in such a horrific event? To compare Japanese medical text with Dutch, Ontleedkundige Tafelen (Anatomical Tables).

During the execution, doctor Sugita Genpaku and his colleagues realized the superiority of the Dutch text and decided to translate it immediately. The resulting book, Kaitai Shinsho (New Book on Anatomy), became Japan’s standard text on anatomy.

Page by Kaitai Shinsho.
National Medical Library

This turned the orthodoxy of the time, where doctors will keep their knowledge secret, teaching it only to their students. This episode is remembered at a memorial in Tokyo:

Rangaku (Dutch research) originated here and serves to revive the progress of modern Japanese science.

This episode reveals some things about science: science must be shared to improve humanity, and every concept can be translated into any language. This is not trivial. Sugita documented this challenge in Rangaku Koto Hajime (Beginning of Dutch Learning).

Sugita tells how he and his colleagues had to understand Dutch words without Japanese equivalents and create those equivalents.



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Sugita is known for another episode that shows how science works: the doctor Kagawa Gen’etsu claims in his book Sanron (1765) that the developing fetus is located upside down in the womb. Sugita expressed skepticism, as this is not documented in Dutch or traditional texts.

After later discovering that Kagawa’s observations were correct, he openly admitted his mistake. Not all scientists are as honest as Sugita, but over time, the scientific process tends to correct mistakes and turn to the truth.

These early steps illustrate scientific thinking when confronted with new knowledge. Sugita writes:

We were ashamed to have lived […] in […] complete ignorance […] without the slightest idea of ​​the true configuration of the body, […] this was to be considered the basis of our art.

A different way of knowing?

So how does Japan combine traditional and modern knowledge? Has he developed a different “way of knowing”, a new form of science?

Writer Tanizaki Junichiro reflects on this in In’ei Raisan (In Praise of the Shadows, 1933), in which he criticizes modernity and praises the Japanese aesthetic that favors shadows and imagination:

Suppose […] we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them take different forms, would not our countless daily gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art – would they not suit our national character better from them? In fact, our concept of physics itself and […] chemistry is likely to be different from that of Westerners; and the facts we are now taught about the nature and function of light, electricity, and atoms may have come in different forms.



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The answer to any case of perception of science in Asia is definitely not. Physics and chemistry are not cultural or aesthetic constructions; they deal with phenomena that exist, even if our species does not exist.

Tanizaki, who was prone to irony, goes on to say, “Of course I indulge only in empty speculation; I don’t know anything about scientific issues. “

Tradition and science intertwine

Our next stop is the Manshu-in Temple in Kyoto and the “microbial mound” of Kinzuka. It bears the inscription of microbiologist Sakaguchi Kinichiro:

Kinzuka, the microbial mound, is a monument of microbiology on the territory of the Manchu-in Monzeki Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Photo: Anthony Poole (CC BY 4.0)

To the countless souls of microbes

Who have dedicated and sacrificed

For the existence of people

We pay our deepest respect.

Here we are holding a memorial service

For the peace and condolences of their souls,

Construction of a microbial mound.

Kinzuka is not scientific, but it offers scientists a chance to think. This is something quite unique for Japan. In contrast, entering Japanese laboratories, one can be anywhere in the world. The methods are standard, the equipment is recognizable. And when we exchange protocols, they can be easily applied in any laboratory, albeit with little translation.

The details of how to grow microbes or how to extract DNA from them are separate from Japanese culture – or virtually any culture.

However, some Japanese research is based on culture and art. One example is Aizome (indigo dyeing), which involves extracting dye by fermenting indigo leaves. The traditional process is fascinating and no craftsman needs the insights of a scientist to improve his craft.

The scientific part is understanding exactly how fermentation extracts the dye; no craftsman knows this. After discovering how the microbial fermentation process works, my colleagues did something quite amazing – they used this knowledge to develop a fuel cell. In this case, tradition has inspired a new science.

Cultural treasures and science

I have touched on religion, but I want to end by diving into the deep end: science inevitably conflicts with some form of knowledge. Our oldest text, Kojiki (Record of Ancient Questions, 711), tells oral traditions, myths and daggers (gods). It states that the genealogy of the emperor leads to Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun.

As a scientist, I understand that if they are held in the light of modern genetics, linguistics or geology, these stories, if taken literally, are absolute nonsense. But this does not diminish the centrality of these myths in Japanese culture. They are treasures that should not be confused with science.



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I can’t think of a better embodiment of how our national religion, Shinto, stands next to science from the former Emperor Akihito. It is remarkable to learn that he is an avid ichthyologist (fish biologist). Writing in the journal Science, he states:

Since science pursues the truth, and scientific methodology uses the truth for humanity, it is desirable that such research be conducted through collaboration that transcends national and other boundaries.

But how can he support science and be an akitsumikami – “god in manifestation”?

Japanese, Maori, and Western thinkers have resolved this paradox by acknowledging that religion and science do not overlap. One deals with facts and theories, the other with moral meaning and value, and as evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould noted:

[T]hey, bump right into each other, intertwining in astonishingly intricate ways along their common border.

This is worth keeping in mind in Aotearoa’s national discussions about which parts of the Mātauranga Māori belong to science and which belong to other subjects. For example, the claim that Maury is a recognizable life force is problematic for science because there is no such force, but we can understand the cultural values ​​inherent in such a term.

The Japanese equivalent, ki, is found in everyday language. For example, when we say ki o tsukete (beware), the literal translation would be “turn on your Mauri”.

The fact that the Japanese imperial family descended from kami and maori uhakapapa to atua are also ideas that are beyond science. Japanese aesthetics find beauty in shadows and lurking ghosts, but there is also beauty in the illumination that science casts on the world.

This point is well understood by some of the most prominent Maori thinkers, including Maori Durry professor of Maori studies:

You cannot understand science through the tools of mātauranga Māori, and you cannot understand mātauranga Māori through the tools of science. They are different bodies of knowledge, and if you try to see one through the eyes of the other, you confuse it.

We need to study the boundary between mātauranga Māori and science. This may lead to new knowledge (such as the Aizome fuel cell), but some parts will be better treated as non-overlapping.

We must also recognize the value of the scientific progress and legacy of Sugita Genpaku, whose embrace of Dutch research has sealed the fate of much of traditional Japanese medicine – in the service of its improvement.

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