Ian J. Miller is a historian studying empire and energy in modern Japan and East Asia. He is a history professor, Faculty Dean of Cabot House, and Director of Undergraduate Studies.
Ian J. Miller is a historian studying empire and energy in modern Japan and East Asia. He is a history professor, Faculty Dean of Cabot House, and Director of Undergraduate Studies. By Courtesy of Ian J. Miller

Fifteen Questions: Ian Miller on Zoos, Climate Change, and the Quad

The historian and Cabot House Faculty Dean Ian J. Miller sat down to discuss his research on empire and energy in modern Japan and East Asia and life as a faculty dean. “When you stand somewhere else, you look at the world through someone else’s eyes or you work with historical documents, reading into those powerful texts, it can be empowering,” he says.
By Maya M.F. Wilson

Ian J. Miller is a historian studying empire and energy in modern Japan and East Asia. He is a history professor, Faculty Dean of Cabot House, and Director of Undergraduate Studies.

MMFW: I’m very curious to hear, how did you first become interested in Japanese history?

IJM: I was lucky enough to go to a high school that taught Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, and I took them both. And because I’m a glutton for punishment, I chose Japan, because the language felt harder to me. It felt more difficult. And, as part of that young experience, I volunteered as part of a YMCA youth exchange to go work with campers at a camp on the Northern Island of Hokkaido, Camp Chimmikeppu, where I got to work with remarkable young people.

And really, my career choice, it turns out, I like to write books. It was really academic or maybe kindergarten teacher. So there’s a little bit of both in my character, which the students in Cabot House hopefully see. I love working with young people. I think they’re fascinating. There’s the kind of potential and joy and struggle and difficulty and becoming that is being young, is so powerful and full of hope. And I really enjoy that. And I learn from young people all the time. And so yeah, it started with my own schoolwork, but then became, you know, camp counselor, and then from camp counselor to professor.

MMFW: Tell me why Japan is fascinating.

IJM: As a historian, Japan’s fascinating because it’s the world’s first non-Western, industrialized, and imperial power. And so it embodies so many of the tensions and possibilities of what it means to be in this modern world of ours.

When you stand somewhere else, you look at the world through someone else’s eyes or you work with historical documents, reading into those powerful texts, it can be empowering. Because it lets us, and hopefully lets our students, see that the world can be different, that they can change it. That we can change it. And I write mostly out of that passion.

MMFW: Your first book, “The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo,” is about Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, which was the first modern zoo in East Asia. What do you find to be the connection between empire, colonialism, and zoos?

IJM: Zoos are microcosms of empire! They’re fascinating. They are diverse, rich with contradictions, and they are fundamentally acts of acquisition and violence.

Part of why I’m an academic, and a historian and intellectual is I love to be surprised by new ideas and new ways of seeing the world.

I love nature, I love being outside, I am a happy owner of two wonderful cats, one of them’s deaf, the other one has no teeth, and a dog named Sadie who has the world’s biggest underbite. I really love the animal world, and the kind of fecund, remarkable reality of the natural world, so that might have been part of what brought me to the topic. But then, the recognition that this place I used to go for fun was in fact a showcase of empire, a mechanism in the 19th century for demarcating and instantiating and embodying the crucial separation, in those terms, between what it meant to be human and what is meant to be animal, in the high age of Social Darwinist thought — when the separation between humans and animals was often synonymous or understood to be synonymous with the division between colonized and colonizer.

So, who would have thought? You know, a book about a zoo, and then I ended up at Harvard University.

MMFW: What’s your favorite part about being Cabot faculty dean?

IJM: That’s easy. The students. Our students are remarkable, they are bright, they are caring, they are kind, they are deeply motivated. My wife and I are proud to be deans of Cabot. We’re not the fanciest house on campus. But our house is full of remarkable staff, from our building manager and resident dean and house administrator, academic coordinator, to the HUDS staff, to our janitorial staff, to the groundskeeping staff, to the folks who care for the HVAC and keep the water running in the house. I can’t name these folks clearly enough. They are remarkable and they’re here out of acts of caring for students. I always hope that our students recognize that with a sense of gratitude. It’s humbling.

MMFW: What’s the hardest part of the job?

IJM: This is not exciting. But the reality of being a faculty dean being for both my wife and I, my wife is vice president at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. And I am a professor of History and director of undergraduate studies. Those are two demanding, more-than-full time jobs. And the faculty dean elements come on top of that work. There is no accompanying reduction in our work lives as we become faculty deans. So the hardest part of the work is time management, which I struggle with, if I’m honest.

Our students are so remarkable, and our staff is working so hard, that for us to not show up is simply not an option.

MMFW: What would you say, apart from the students, is your favorite part about the Quad, more generally?

IJM: Oh, the Quad! Its rich history as a site of contestation, resistance, inclusion, and belonging. I taught a course last semester called Quad Lab, and we rewrote the title to be “ReWriting the History of Harvard and Radcliffe.” We had a brilliant TF, Hazim Hardaman, and a collection of 12 incredibly sharp, motivated undergraduates.

We looked into the history of the Quad as a site of really embodying the best possibilities of this place at a time when women were not understood to be sufficient to the demands of a Harvard education. How ridiculous is that? We are one of three houses that claims that legacy of demonstrating the absurdity of the bigotry and misogyny behind that.

As a historian, nothing makes me prouder.

MMFW: In terms of the physical space?

IJM: One thing I love about the Quad is that there are three houses! We share a sense of identity in that retreat. We’re Harvard’s backyard.

Right now the Quad lawn, which is right out this window, is full of undergraduates. There’s someone throwing a frisbee, there are three or four puppies running around, there’s a couple dozen students sunbathing, chilling out, studying and just hanging out. The lawn is amazing.

The Quad lets you let your guard down, lets you just be yourself, a little more than other parts of campus just by simple fact of its history and its location.

MMFW: This is kind of a funny question, take it as you will. How does Cambridge compare to Japan?

IJM: Oh my gosh! This is arguably one of the sites in the nation with the deepest history, and even here, Cambridge is new compared to Japan. Harvard’s founding in the 17th century, that’s the tail end of the early modern period in Japan. I love the sense of historical depth you have in Cambridge, the legacy in the built environment, which is more powerful than most of Japan. Because Japan itself is subject to remarkable earthquakes, but also was subjected to bombing from the United States that leveled city after city, after city. So most of the built environment in Japan is very new, but the country itself, its history, and so on, has much much deeper history that I celebrate.

MMFW: What’s your favorite class that you’ve taught at Harvard?

IJM: I don’t think I can choose just one, but I will say that the Quad Lab course was special.

MMFW: You mentioned on your personal website that one of your academic interests is comparative imperialism. How do you compare imperialisms?

IJM: I would say comparative imperialisms, always plural. I find that pluralizing these complex terms, simply adding an “s” to any complicated term, allows us to think with nuance. And in my case what it allows us to do is move into the past, and into the past tense.

We must reconcile and reckon with the past, using the archives and the materials that are available to us.

MMFW: I know you’re writing this book, “Fueling Tokyo.” Are there any other upcoming projects that you’re excited about?

IJM: A co-edited project with two younger scholars and a senior figure in my field of Japan studies and Japanese histories, a book called “Oceanic Japan,” which seeks to question the terrestrial bias of most history writing, shifting our attention from the land to the seas, which is especially important for an archipelago like Japan. But also reformulating and re-situating Japan so that it’s best understood and accurately understood as a Pacific nation, a Pacific archipelago.

MMFW: How did you and Crate meet?

IJM: We first met each other on the first day of college, on our freshman living learning dorm hall, at a place called Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, a small Quaker liberal arts school that we chose because it was full of wonderfully curious, quirky people who wanted to change the world.

We loved the place, Earlham was a powerful influence on both of us. We met that first day. We didn’t start dating immediately. We flirted a little our first semester of freshman year, and we began dating really our senior year. On New Year’s Eve of our senior year, as the clock chimed midnight, I first kissed Crate Herbert, who became my wife. She is wonderful. I adore her. I feel very lucky that we’ve been together 30 years or more, and we’ve been married more than 25 years. It’s one of the great gifts of my life. That doesn’t have to go in print, it’s just true.

MMFW: I know you both really love animals, and you have a few pets at home.

IJM: There’s Sadie over there! Hi sweetie! Yeah! You doing okay?

MMFW: This is perhaps going to be a difficult question for you to answer, but I wonder if you have a favorite pet?

IJM: No favorite pets, it depends on the day!

Crate, when we were younger, was a cat person, and I was a dog person. And both of us have come to love the other. Our first cat was named Gus. Gus was a huge Maine Coon cat and he would sit on your chest and purr and lick your nose. And our first dog was actually Sadie, and we got Sadie in the year I was coming up for tenure at Harvard University.

It is a very difficult period of life, and I thought, you know what? I’m finally going to get a dog.

MMFW: You offer Ph.D. general exam fields in “Global Environmental History” and “Energy History,” and you’ve touched on this a little bit, but I’m wondering if you could elucidate, what does history have to teach us about energy and the environment in the modern age?

IJM: History does two things. My work was originally was in the cultural history of empire and Japan more broadly.

But then we decided to have children, and bringing our son into the world shifted my personal politics fundamentally. When you’re lucky enough to have children, your world pivots on a new axis.

My work quickly took on a concern for the future my son would live his way into. And climate change has moved to the center of my politics, my professional practice, and my passion in the classroom is to help students understand the complexities of those problems, how we got here, and how we can hopefully unwind those issues. History of energy in particular teaches us that the energy transition, as we’re talking about it now, that we hope to institute, needs best to be understood as a revolution. This is not an incremental change that we need. We need a wholesale rethinking of our approach to infrastructure, energy and economy, with a focus on justice and equity, globally.

MMFW: Any advice you’d like to give to the students reading this article?

IJM: Oh that’s a really great question. It’s going to be really trite and cheesy, but I genuinely mean this. People don’t arrive at Harvard by accident.

College must be a place for fun, and it needs to be a place where you can make mistakes. And it’s okay. This environment is meant to be a place where you screw up.

That’s how we learn, and that’s really hard for our students, I find. That’s part of why I love the house system. The houses are a place you can be yourself, and you can blow it, and it’s okay. You’re a member of Cabot House no matter what.

—Associate Magazine Editor Maya M. F. Wilson can be reached at maya.wilson@thecrimson.com.

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