Issue 11.3 | Summer 2013 / Guest edited by Rachel C. Lee

Bombyx and Bugs in Meiji Japan: Toward a Multispecies History?

Folded just so, the parachute never failed. Always, it floated back to you—silkily, beautifully—to start over and float back again. Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard—gracefully, lightly, it floated back to you.
—John McPhee[1]


American writer John McPhee once described with great nostalgia a toy silk parachute that his mother gave him in the 1940s. It represents one of the most soft and simple of combat toys, and, for the writer, it perhaps reminded him of more innocent days. Made of little more than light, strong cloth and string, the tug of an actual World War II soldier’s parachute ripcord would allow the fabric to billow out and bring him to a soft landing—ideally to a place of safety. That sign of a life possibly saved, that half sphere of air enclosed by silk, drifted into the center of a US boycott against Japan between 1937 and 1940.

The path of the parachute began much earlier, in fact, before the threat of war loomed in the Pacific. In Japan in the late 1800s, a category of student emerged to partake in “egg examinations” that aimed to prevent the spread of disease in the domesticated silkworm species Bombyx mori. These pupils would form a line of defense, standing watch against contagion. Seated at desks placed uniformly next to glass-paned windows, young women or men looked into their microscopes, careful not to cast any shadow that could obstruct their fields of view, illuminated by sunlight. The slides displayed tissue samples from mother moths that had just laid fertilized eggs. These moths, represented in the form of abstract smears, carried potential signs of disease that could decimate entire stocks. The new technicians subjected to this scientific training at relatively new Japanese sericulture experiment stations and institutes were examined for their performance just as much as the moths themselves were. As Americans accepted raw silk fibers with increasing enthusiasm from Europe, China, and Japan, the relationships among humans, moths (including their juvenile forms), and microbes gradually changed and facilitated the mass production of raw silk that Japan would export to the United States by the early 1900s.

The development of scientific interests in the hygiene of Bombyx mori shows how investments in human skills connected to the cultivation of the moth species were tied to the production of unease about the growing presence of Japanese fibers in the US textiles market. Thinking historically through Bombyx allows for the investigation of multiple issues, from the craft of silkworm husbandry and the production of scientific knowledge, to matters of safety, national security, and consumer culture. This approach brings into wider view understudied angles that help enrich previous understandings of the US-Japan tensions that ensnarled the history of the industrialization of silk production and trade. The work of examining eggs to prevent the spread of disease is one important aspect of sericulture in modern Japan. Lessons from this highly specific case present a world in itself, but those should resonate broadly among analysts, and not only those of historical inclination. A historical look at egg examinations helps underscore the need for continued empirical attention to the material interactions among nonhumans and humans in a way that complements studies of totemism and the growth of scholarship to consider the material moments of “when species meet.”[2] The design of this essay follows one thread of a growing fabric of research involving the “multispecies.” A number of scholars have recently opened up a vibrant discussion about multispecies ethnography, which continues to attract attention, not only among scholars committed to anthropological methodologies or to experimental art, but also among those who conduct empirical archival studies in the writing of histories.[3] In the lively, experimental spirit of multispecies research, I explore how a broader view of the domesticated silkworm species, which includes the “bugs” that afflicted it, forces us to reenvision familiar histories of sericulture that centered upon the means and end of “silk making.” In this case, a “multispecies” history draws our attention to the materiality of the biotic world that humans and nonhumans cohabit in order to produce a more holistic view of what “make silk.”

This essay answers the question of what exactly constituted the stuff of silk neckties, parachutes, dresses, hosiery, and even shower curtains, in the years leading to World War II. The focus of analysis bears upon understanding the formation of threads that preceded the casting of American threads that were used by factory workers to make garments or military paraphernelia. The essay looks beneath the shine and sheen of silk in order to consider different issues that stoked or promoted the production of raw silk as well as motivated the reach (or blockade) of this commodity to a predominantly North American market in the first half of the twentieth century. This requires a deliberation of the activities that went into making raw silk in Japan, especially a deeper recognition of the insect employed for this purpose, the domesticated silkworm, Bombyx mori, and its parasites. This closer, organism-centric look at textiles thus makes clear the critical value of asking why silk could be marshaled overseas on the scale that it did by the 1910s and 1920s. Only then can it make sense to understand why the domesticated silkworm found its species intertwined with the historical formation of an American view that saw silk as a threatening entity, tied metaphorically to the production of international tensions with Japan. The consumer, nation, scientist, technician, and silkworm come together in a way that demands a consideration of the interactions between humans and nonhumans. A number of different organisms can enter a silk narrative depending on the ecological relations paramount to a story. In this particular case of “egg examinations,” it is not just the species itself, but a gendered moment in its life cycle that particularly concerned the historical actors at the time.

Microbial Threats

Humans have long had a vested interest in maintaining the health of their silkworm stocks, for robust larvae are necessary for a fruitful harvest of raw silk. Collected at first in the form of cocoons, these curious objects spun by silkworm larvae are then placed in boiling-hot water in order to loosen a single fiber. This fiber constitutes one of many that are twisted together at a filature factory to produce raw silk suitable for commercial use. What is lost in silkworm life is gained in capital. Yet, to perpetuate a stock of silkworms, silkworm breeders must also select some cocoons in order to permit the larvae inside to pupate into a chrysalis and complete its metamorphosis into either an adult female or male moth. The human-chaperoned meeting and mating of moths initiates the moment of egg-laying, which begins the lifecycle of Bombyx mori. Multiple species, beyond the domesticated silk moth and the humans, are associated with an understanding of sericulture; there is also the mulberry, the leaves of which are consumed almost exclusively. Then, there are the other bugs.

Historically, a number of diseases have worried the humans who have worked in the business of egg production, but perhaps none have vexed them more than pébrine. It was dreaded because it efficiently decimated complete cohorts of silkworm larvae, was highly infectious, and ensured great economic loss. The oft-used French term for this disease suggests a peppery affiliation; in the infected silkworms, the larvae are riddled with unsightly dark spots, and most usually die before any hope of spinning a cocoon. As described by early-twentieth-century silk buyer Leo Duran, “The origin of this is not known, it is hereditary, and a few leaves spoiled with the excretions of sick worms are sufficient to poison a whole roomful of healthy worms.”[4] The disease itself had been known previously, but when a pébrine blight erupted across France in the late 1850s, it wreaked havoc in southern Europe and posed such a danger to the lucrative income source of silk that imports of Chinese and Japanese silkworm eggs began. Meanwhile, the French Minister of Agriculture assigned Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) the task of determining the cause. By culturing and studying sick silkworms, Pasteur used microscopy to examine the transmission of this disease. After analyzing female moths that had finished laying fertilized eggs and tracking the health of the juveniles that hatched, Pasteur found that it could be possible to confirm whether a specific cohort of eggs was infected. In other words, this microsporidian parasite associated with pébrine, which in 1866 remained without a species name, seemed to pass from one generation to the next through the body of the mother moth. Diseased female moths gave way to diseased eggs and offspring.[5] Obversely, healthy females produced healthy eggs and offspring.

The story of the identification of Nosema bombycis has received scant attention from historians to date, and scientists today still express uncertainty about its nomenclature. Around the world, experts regard the unicellular Nosema bombycis as the first-described Microsporidia, a phylum in the kingdom Fungus. The link between what is now understood as the fungal pathogen Nosema bombycis, and botanist Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli, who originally thought it was a yeast, remains a separate subject of analysis; however, its interesting history points to a period when a great deal of new knowledge about disease etiologies was produced, and, with that, contestations of classification.[6] Although Nägeli seemed to have first proposed a name for the disease agent, the role that Pasteur played in understanding the disease transmission has remained unquestioned for its significance in changing human practices of silkworm husbandry.

By the 1870s, Pasteur began to teach skeptical farmers how to identify and manage the disease.[7] The recovery that ensued meant that European interest in Japan as a viable source of fresh silkworm eggs would taper off, bringing an end to this trade. Japan, it could be said, was a loser in the “Pasteurization” of the French silk industry; however, one is hard-pressed not to ignore the importance of Pasteur’s work in changing sericultural practice worldwide.[8] There is no need here to fortify a narrative of genius; nor do I aspire to execute the task of following all actors and actants involved with the disciplining of Nosema.[9] Yet, the exchange between the Japanese and the French poses an intriguing set of questions related to the global transmission of new practices and knowledge related to the science of silkworm rearing. Venturing to examine how knowledge of identifying diseased mother moths and their offspring particularly helps to bring into relief a very important counterbalance to the immense importance of German bacteriology and medicine in the history of Meiji period Japan.[10] It also destabilizes assumptions about Japan’s indigeneity as an isolated, pure, and therefore hygienic island nation. The movement of live eggs from Japan to France (and Italy and other points in continental Europe) did not indicate a completely disease-free sanctuary for Bombyx; nor did it confirm the transfer of disease to Japan. Facile understandings about Japan’s isolated environment or hygienic rearing practices obscure how the Japanese, too, had great concerns about controlling this disease.

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  1. John McPhee, “Silk Parachute,” New Yorker (1997): 108. [Return to text]
  2. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963); Donna Jeanne Haraway, When Species Meet, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008). [Return to text]
  3. S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology 25.4 (2010): 545–576; Celia Lowe, “VIRAL CLOUDS: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia,” Cultural Anthropology 25.4 (2010): 625–649; Hoon Song, Pigeon Trouble: Bestiary Biopolitics in a Deindustrialized America, (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2011); Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species,” Environmental Humanities 1 (2012): 141-151; Natalie Porter, “Bird Flu Biopower: Strategies for Multispecies Coexistence in Việt Nam,” American Ethnologist 40.1 (2013): 132-148. [Return to text]
  4. Leo Duran, Raw silk; a practical hand-book for the buyer, (New York, Silk Publishing Company, 1921): 25. [Return to text]
  5. Gerald L. Geison, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995); Rene J. Dubos, Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1960). [Return to text]
  6. C. Nägeli, “Über die neue Krankheit der Seidenraupe und verwandte Organismen,” Beilage zur Botanischen Zeitung 15 (1857): 760-761; C. Franzen “Microsporidia: a review of 150 years of research,” Open Parasitology Journal 2 (2008): 1-34. Uncertainty about classificatory nomenclature “arises as Microsporidium Balbiani 1884 appears to be a later synonym of Nosema Naegeli 1857,” according to newer efforts to classify the kingdom Fungi using molecular phylogenetic data. See David S Hibbett, et al., “A Higher-level Phylogenetic Classification of the Fungi,” Mycological Research 111.5 (2007): 509–547. For additional information, see J. O. Corliss and N. D. Levine, “Establishment of the Microsporidia as a new class in the protozoan subphylum Cnidospora,” Journal of Protozoology 10 (Suppl.) (1963): 26–27. [Return to text]
  7. Details of the half-decade of work that Pasteur spent identifying the pattern of infection have been discussed in Geison 1995 and Dubos 1960. [Return to text]
  8. Louis Pasteur, Etudes sur la maladie des vers à soie, moyen pratique assuré de la combattre et d’en prévenir le retour, (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, successeur de Mallet-Bachelier, 1870). [Return to text]
  9. For discussion of the “Pasteurian world,” see Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988): 12. [Return to text]
  10. James R. Bartholomew, The Formation of Science in Japan: Building a Research Tradition, (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993); Pierre-Yves Donzé, “Studies Abroad by Japanese Doctors: A Prosopographic Analysis of the Nameless Practitioners, 1862–1912,” Social History of Medicine 23 (2010): 244–260. [Return to text]