Nissan Seminar: Japanese Mermaids in Darwin’s West

Convener(s): Professor Sho Konishi

Speaker(s): Dr Mateja Kovacic, British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies


Mateja Kovacic is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, University of Oxford. She is a historian and anthropologist of technology and science, with focus on the “weird” scientific objects at the intersection of popular culture and science in the Tokugawa period. Her current projects include the history of robots in Japan, with focus on eccentric robot stories in the Tokugawa period and modern Japan; and the anthropology and politics of contemporary social robots and artificial intelligence in Japan. Mateja is also a visiting fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield, where she researches the impact of social robots and artificial intelligence on culture and society in an international context. Her work challenges the usual views and ideas we have about science, technology, modernity and knowledge production using material objects to peer into the cultural and intellectual histories of everyday life.

Talk: Japanese Mermaids in Darwin’s West

During the nineteenth century, showmen like P. T. Barnum were earning big money by displaying Japanese mummified mermaids to their British and US audiences. At the same time, naturalists were inspecting these specimens, trying to ascertain whether they were genuine, or what sorts of creatures they were composed of. Either way, the talk hypothesises that these mummified mermaids made in Japan, by all means perceived today as the scientifically weird and non-fitting objects in the historiography of science, became part of the debates about the natural world order, taxonomy, and the theory of evolution. The material objects brought from Japan, exquisitely crafted, and presented with stories about the newly-discovered fertile exotic lands filled with hybrids and “missing links” such as platypus and dugong helped transform the natural history world that the ever-developing taxonomical systems such as Linnaeus’ were attempting to put back into order.

This talk looks at the Japanese mummified mermaids and their role in the making of Darwin’s West and in the global scientific modernity by examining the material fabriacted Japanese mermaid at the intersection of myth and popular culture and science and modernity in the Euro-American context. It challenges the ideas we have about modernity not only by exploring how tangible “weird” fabricated objects from Japan impacted Euro-American science but also the ways that mythology, folklore and popular culture were intertwined with thinking about the world and scientifically redefining it.


Figure of a 'mermaid' composed of the upper part of a monkey's body and a fish's tail with various additions. (Register, 1942). With wooden lidded case. Ca. 18th century. Japan. 

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