Fabian Drixler is Professor of History at Yale University, where he specializes in the history of Japan (with a particular fondness for the Tokugawa period) and historical demography (with a particular fascination with fertility and family planning). His research also extends into climate history and historical cartography. Since 2019 he has led the “Digital Tokugawa Lab”. Its inaugural project brings together expertise in history, linguistics, programming, and GIS to create a continuous set of highly detailed maps of Japan’s feudal territories from about 1600 to 1871.
He has written (and sometimes even published) on the following topics: the flow and ebb of family planning, especially in Japan and in Sri Lanka; fertility rises of the past and the future, cultures of infanticide, population policy, the power of discourses and images to effect demographic change, the surprisingly fraught politics of internal migration in Tokugawa Japan, the emergence of imagined communities of the living and the dead, the invention of more than a million stillbirths in Imperial Japan, the operation of omote-naishō, a political culture that traded performative law-abidance for the autonomy to deviate; the expectation in 1868 that Japan would permanently fracture into Eastlands and Westlands and why these alternative Japanese (nation?) states have been largely forgotten; finally, and most saliently for his time at CAPAS, he has spent the better part of a decade collecting materials about Japan’s volcanic winters of the Little Ice Age and the fractal patterns of mortality they produced.
In this work, he enjoys bringing together different methodologies: close readings of texts, images, and objects; databases of phenomena that can be counted, computed, or mapped; statistical analysis, GIS, and simulations and neural nets when he can convince a friend to do the hard technical work.
One of Fabian’s most cherished professional experiences was curating a museum exhibit that was a history in objects, entitled Samurai and the Culture of Japan’s Great Peace. He also likes to be on the receiving end of efforts to bring expert knowledge to a wider audience; he finds that a good deal of the joy of a life in academia is found by reading and listening beyond one’s narrow specialties; for example, about the non-human world and deep history.
Japan in the Volcanic Winters of the Little Ice Age
During Japan’s Great Peace (1615-1863), the closest its people came to experiencing a collective apocalypse were nine volcanic winters. Famine rent the veil of material sufficiency and bared the brutality of life amid terrible choices. Locally, famine was a form a system collapse, killing half the population in a single hungry spring and leaving the survivors with the trauma of what they had suffered and done. Among several questions I hope to investigate during my time at CAPAS is a surprising absence: in the teeth of shattered personal, local, regional worlds, apocalyptic language remained muted and rare. The contrast with our own time is thought-provoking, when apocalyptic imagery colours the public conversations of many countries. But a similar contrast can be drawn with people who lived under the same dust-veiled sky. Lord Byron wrote his “Darkness” during the volcanic winter of 1816, inspired by the popular panics that followed the announcement by an Italian astronomer that on July 18 the sun would go out. In Japan’s volcanic winters, no millenarian panics stirred. And yet, the aftermath of the famines may fit some of the patterns of the/a post-apocalypse. A new vision of government emerged. Elements of a welfare state appeared. Radical reform was mooted, too, including totalitarian visions complete with assigned professions and day-care centres for all. These phenomena have not conventionally been understood as post-apocalyptic, but I am eager to see what examining them from this new angle may reveal.