Victoria LeeJul 16, 2023
The Arts of the Microbial World
Fermentation Science in Twentieth-Century Japan
University of Chicago Press 2021
Victoria Lee’s The Arts of the Microbial World: Fermentation Science in Twentieth-Century Japan (U Chicago Press, 2021) is an in-depth exploration of the social history of microbial science in modern Japan. Lee shows that Japanese scientists and artisans in food, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries harnessed a combination of premodern and modern understandings of the microbial world to create a productive approach positing microbes “as living workers” in important industries.
With case studies that include sake and soy sauce, antibiotics, and biotechnology, Arts of the Microbial World weaves a historical narrative integrated with both the development of modern Japanese science and industry on the one hand and imperialism, expansion, and defeat and rebuilding on the other. Additionally, Lee couches her analysis of Japan’s microbial industries in the context of our contemporary microbiotic moment of antibiotic resistance, the microbiome, green chemistry, and lab-grown foods and pharmaceuticals. In this sense, Arts of the Microbial World will be of interest to scholars and students of Japan, the history of science, food, pharmaceuticals, and industry, but also to readers concerned about the possibilities of mobilizing non-Western technological breakthroughs in the quest for global sustainability.
Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese language and history in the University of Bergen's Department of Foreign Languages.