Sato Nobuhiro

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(b. Ugo [now Akita] prefecture, Japan, 1769: d. Edo [now Tokyo], Japan, 6 January 1850); SATō NOBUKAGE (b. Nishimonai, 1674: d. Nishimonai, 1732): SATō NOBUSUE (b. 1724: d. 1784) mining, agriculture, economics.

The Satō family served the feudal lords of Ugo (now Akita) prefecture as physicians. Of the five generations so employed, there is little information about the first two. Satō I, Nobukuni (whose pen name was Kan’an) and Satō II , Nobutake (Gen’an), save that they were father and son. Of Satō Nobutaka’s son Satō Nobukage (Fumaiken) it is known that while originally a physician, he studied agricultural administration, natural history, and natural science in order to find a means of helping farmers who had experienced crop failures. He spent the years 1688 to 1703 on the island of Yesso (now Hokkaido) and drew upon his experiences there to compose the twelve-volume New Theory of Developing the Country. He also wrote a five-volume work entitled Features of the Soil, and a shorter, two-volume book called Secrets of the Mountain Phase and managed the Matsuoka mine in Ugo with notable success.

Satō IV. Nobusue (Genmeika), was, like his father Satō Nobukage, a physician. He also studied agricultural management and economics and wrote a work entitled How to Preserve Fishermen’s Villages and another, in four volumes, called Illustration of the Secret of the Mountain Phase. His son, Satō V, was Satō Nobuhiro (Yūsai), who in 1782 accompanied him to Yesso, where he remained for a year. Satō Nobuhiro was present when his father died at the Ashio mine; he obeyed his last wish, and went to Edo to study science under Genzui udagawa and Gentaku Ōtsuki. He there learned astronomy, mensuration, geography, and surveying. In 1787 he traveled to Kyushu and through western Honshu. In 1808 he studied literature with Atsutane Hirata and about 1839 he became closely associated with the leading members of Bansha, the Association of Foreign Learning. These included Watanabe Kazan, a painter and minister of the Tawara clan, and the physician Takano Chōei: Satō Nobuhiro was imprisoned with them in the same year, when Bansha was suppressed through the efforts of conservative scholars, but he was soon released. During the Tempo reformation (1841–1843) he acted as adviser to prime minister Mizuno Tadakuni.

The accomplishments of the elder Satōs can be understood only in the context of the secrecy in which science and technology were held in feudal Japan. Knowledge was jealously guarded and, for the most part, passed on orally from father to son. Even when a formal school existed (and it may be assumed that the works of the earlier Satōs were composed for such a school), its members were sworn to hold what they had learned in confidence. Even Satō Nobuhiro notes this tradition in his book Laws of the Mine, reminding his patron that “Although the laws of the mine are essentially the most precious secret of our family, I will transmit them to you, not revealing that fact even to the staff of my school, since I was impressed by your enthusiasm and patriotism. In consequence, you must not show this work even to your parents or your brother.”

The knowledge accumulated by the Satō family and published by Satō Nobuhiro was concerned with politics, agricultural administration, economics, natural history, natural science, mining techniques, metallurgy, the exploration of ore deposits, mine management, geography, education, law, and military science. Satō Nobukage and Satō Nobusue both wished to alleviate the lot of the farmers, which they had observed in their travels: Satō Nobuhiro, in addition, had in his youth experienced the severe famine of the Temmei era (in 1782) and later observed the great famine of the Tempo period (in 1836). Since all the Satōs served a feudal lord, their concern with agricultural subjects was doubly legitimate.

The deep interest of the Satō family in mining was in part the result of the changing economic conditions of Japan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As trade developed rapidly, a merchant class rose to power and the warrior aristocracy, the samurai class, correspondingly declined. As Japan gradually began to emerge from feudalism, it became necessary for the feudal lords to find an economic basis other than agriculture, and some of them began to develop a mining industry: by the beginning of the eighteenth century the Ugo district, the seat of the Satōs, produced more copper than any other part of Japan. The interest of the Satōs in mining was therefore predictable.

Indeed, Satō Nobuhiro’s best-known work concerns mining. Part of his Secret of the Mountain Phase is devoted to describing a method for predicting the presence of ores. The method given was, however, an unscientific one, based on the shape of the mountain that might contain the ores, together with the characteristics of the “spirit,” or moisture, that evaporates from the ore body. A large part of the rest of the book describes methods for refining gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, iron, mercury, and sulfur ores, and discusses the management of mines, with particular emphasis on the well-being of miners. Satō Nobuhiro set out a system for the division of the operations of a mine into departments, and considered the role of each department, as well as its physical location at the site of a mine. His discussion includes the daily supply of food and other necessary goods, as well as the need for a recreation area for the miners and the part to be played by religion in their lives.

Satō Nobuhiro also presented a system for the management of the whole civil state in his Elements of Economics and Government and Reactionism. He designed an authoritarian, ideal state in which the class distinctions between the samurai, farmers, manufacturers, merchants, and peasants would be abolished and all Japan would be united under a single ruler. All land and all the means for production would be owned by the state, and the state would administer all commerce and foreign trade. Satō Nobuhiro’s plan also included a system of free education, up to and including the university level.

In drawing up his scheme of government. Satō Nobuhiro was influenced by western political science and science, taking from them in particular the notion of the equality of men. He was a popularizer of western thought (as a young man he had attempted to learn Dutch, since the Dutch were the only westerners permitted in Japan at that time) and wrote the first japanese works on western science and history. He spent much of his later life composing such studies and died in retirement.

H. Kobayashi