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January 22, 2021

Research spotlight: Yulia Frumer investigates the history of science in Japan

By SHIVNI PATEL | November 18, 2019

Associate Professor Yulia Frumer always looks beneath the surface. Although her primary field of specialization is the history of science and technology in Japan, Frumer’s focus is always on the hunt for puzzles and surprises that lie beneath “first glances” at cultural differences. 

Frumer sees the importance of studying the history of science and technology in Japan when considering the nation’s state of technological progress alongside the many cultural differences it exhibits with the West. 

“Japan is a very advanced country, both scientifically and technologically. I think that nobody could even think of putting Japan in a third-world category,” Frumer said in an interview with The News-Letter. “At the same time, there are things that are done differently in Japan.... That often highlights the way that certain things are automatically assumed as truth. When studying a different culture and the way that a different culture approaches these things, we realize why we are doing certain things.”

In her research, Frumer frequently comes across differences in cultural approaches to science and technology.

One difference Frumer studied related to differences in the time-keeping system in Japan. According to Frumer, up until the end of the 19th century, the Japanese used a time system in which the length of hours changed with the seasons. 

For the most part, outside of Japan, hours were thought of as they are now, as units of equal length, determined based on the division of the fixed time period of dawn to dusk. However, because the times of dawn and dusk change throughout the year, the Japanese did not divide hours into constant units of equal length. Rather, they changed the length of the hours to correspond to the length of time between dawn and dusk. Frumer explained how this example can lead one to question their own traditions.

“We hear that, and initially that doesn’t make sense at all. The hours keep changing the length. How can you have a schedule for that? Initially, it’s a kind of shock,” Frumer said. “But then you start thinking, why do you have 60 minutes in an hour? Where does it come from? Why do we completely ignore dawn and dusk when setting the hours of our day?”

Frumer noted that the reactions of disbelief were mutual. The Japanese thought of the Western system as strange and nonsensical, just as the West considered the Japanese system to be odd. According to Frumer, approximation of time exists in both cultures.

“Our noon almost never falls on the astronomical noon, both because you have to be in the middle of the time zone for it to happen and because only four times a year is the length of a day exactly 24 hours. We’re just all agreeing on what noon is, and because we agree, we can define our schedule. So that similarly works on the variable hours system in Japan. As long as everyone agrees, you can be ‘punctual’,” Frumer said.

Frumer has been with the Department of History of Science and Technology at Hopkins since 2012, analyzing and interpreting cultural differences between Japan and the West. Previously Frumer was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany, and spent time at the University of Tokyo on a sabbatical.

The development of Japanese humanoid robotics is a subject that had interested Frumer for a while but was not the full focus of her work until 2015. 

Frumer recently traveled to Japan for research, where she found the subject of her current project. She will soon be publishing an article detailing her findings on the subject, as well as discussing questions of labor and automation in the history of Japan. She described finding a report on the development of a humanoid robotic hand by a graduate student in 1963 in Tokyo. 

“At the time, the industrial robots that they had were mostly for conveyor belts, and the like. There were a lot of processes that happened in between that needed the help of robotics that were a lot more versatile, things that could be easily adjusted,” Frumer said. 

According to Frumer’s findings, the graduate student found photos from 1919 from a “legal doctor” in Kyoto, Japan, which Frumer defines as a professional who investigates how different jobs and forms of labor affect the human body, and whether their effects are healthy. This legal doctor took a series of photographs of the hands of many artisans, looked at the callouses on each hand and analyzed how different kinds of work produced callouses in different places. The graduate student then analyzed these photos and created a mathematical formula to help him understand the different functions of each finger, and the degrees of freedom associated with the number of fingers on the human hand. 

Frumer explained how the legal doctor’s analysis of hands led the student to build a robotic humanoid hand with three fingers.

“What is incredible is that the root of this humanoid hand, something that seemed so futuristic, was based on an analysis of traditional crafts, the hands of craftsmen who worked on the same things over and over again,” Frumer said.

While in Japan, Frumer, a true historian, immersed herself in understanding the implications of the invention for Japan, as well as how the context of being in Japan influenced its creation. Frumer notes that there were multiple places in the world that had developed mechanical hands prior to this invention in Japan, however they were quite bulky. She explained that the invention was quite an accomplishment, but that it was underappreciated at the time.

“His hand was strong mechanically, quite dextrous, and had a lot more degrees of freedom. He traveled with his advisor to America to give a presentation, and... people dismissed them, perhaps because their english was not that great, and in the ‘60s, there was not a very good attitude towards the Japanese. Particularly with American scientists, there was a mindset that they were superior,” Frumer said.

Aside from his reception in the West, Frumer notes that the student’s findings were not fully appreciated in Japan at the time either, due to his relatively minimal professional experience. 

“In retrospect, people can point to this development and say that it was really important. But at the time, he was still just a graduate student doing his research,” Frumer said.

“But it does make one wonder that there could have been a theoretical possibility that we could have grown faster from a technology that we were so quick to dismiss.”

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