Kjell Ericson

Assistant Professor, History of Science, Faculty Fellow, Kyoto University
Faculty Advisers: Sheldon Garon and Benjamin Elman

Nature's Helper: Mikimoto Kōkichi and the Place of Cultivation in the Twentieth Century's Pearl Empires


This dissertation tracks three interrelated developments at a local level: the origins of pearl cultivation in the Japanese empire, the rise of European machine-mediated gemological testing designed to identify “cultured” pearls from Japan, and the contentious transformation of the cultured pearl into a ubiquitous object of adornment in the United States. It argues that Japanese pearl cultivation and the products of pearl cultivation redrew distinctions between nature and culture in the twentieth-century world. Its structure comes from the company controlled by a figure later known inside and outside the Japanese empire as the “Pearl King.” Some of the Japanese empire’s largest farms appeared not on land, but in the water. At the turn of the twentieth century, a Japanese man named Mikimoto Kōkichi began to raise living shellfish and surgically manipulate them in order to produce pearls for export. In the formal terms of imperial Japanese industrial property and fisheries law, pearl oysters became ownable creatures that were susceptible to tinkering and capable of producing pearls on demand. Wide-ranging kinship, labor, patronage, and property relationships supported Mikimoto’s reputation as an individual whose business was raising shellfish and selling the pearls they were made to produce. Mikimoto made the first exclusive ownership claims over pearl oysters, their habitats, and their productive capabilities, but those same moves resulted in legal and extralegal disputes with fishers and other would-be cultivators in Japan. The advantages of monopoly and monoculture also revealed social and ecological fissures amid constant battles to keep human and non-human interlopers out of individually-claimed ocean space. From the early 1920s onward, pearl dealers in Paris and London attempted to create and enforce distinctions between pearls cultivated in the Japanese empire and the “oriental” pearls that they themselves bought and sold. Members of Europe’s largest pearl wholesaler associations turned the “Japanese pearl” into an issue of legal demarcation, product testing, and advertising rhetoric. Despite claiming to be connoisseurs of surfaces, anti-cultivation wholesalers began to argue that a pearl’s value could be ascertained only after an examination of its internal structure. European pearl dealers tried to shore up trust between buyers and sellers by shedding light on what they saw as the innate differences between a natural and a cultured object. Years of legal and scientific debate resulted in a transnational system for separating “cultured” pearls from “natural” ones. Markets for “natural” and “cultured” pearls changed dramatically amid the global repercussions of post-1929 financial crisis and post-1931 Japanese aggression on the Asian mainland. A standard view in the historiography of the Persian Gulf region is that Japanese pearl cultivation decimated the region’s hitherto dominant pearl economy as its oil economy was taking shape. This dissertation argues that mass pearl cultivation was a contradictory response to a rising number of cultivators in 1930s Japan. Mikimoto tried to control competing Japanese pearl production through the use of patent-sharing agreements, even as his own farms processed more shellfish than ever before. The 1920s European battles over pearl nomenclature moved to a new and different field in the interwar United States. In New York City, the world’s largest post World War I market for pearls and precious stones, the affordability of cultured pearl necklaces became part of gendered depression-era appeals by Mikimoto’s salesmen—and newly arrived American cultured pearl dealers—to entice American women to purchase objects of adornment rather than objects of investment. Even as Mikimoto made claims to intervene in the lives of marine shellfish in order to produce more pearls, his claims fueled clashes over how, and by whom, those interventions and products would be controlled and represented. Precisely because there were multiple and often competing meanings of cultivation, relationships between humans and mollusks—as well as the products that resulted from them—became flashpoints of conflict on land and sea.