Annika Culver’s Japan's Empire of Birds: Aristocrats, Anglo-Americans, and Transwar Ornithology (Bloomsbury Academic 2022) uses a previously unavailable archive of photographs as the jumping off point to follow the careers of Japanese ornithologists in the transwar generation as they navigated the complexities of their swiftly changing political circumstances. Japan’s Empire of Birds brings out the tensions between aristocratic connoisseurship elegance, scientific advancement, and intense personal relationships on the one hand; and imperial and military violence and race-based power hierarchies on the other. Birds themselves embody such paradoxes and tensions: they are symbols of freedom even as we trap, train them as hunters and spies, and even eat them, and they are both nationalist symbols (every country has a national bird) while migratory birds exist as transnational transgressors in a borderless world beyond human politics. These themes underlie Culver’s exploration of networks of Japanese ornithologists and their mostly Anglo-American counterparts from the 1920s to the 1970s.
Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese language and history in the University of Bergen's Department of Foreign Languages.