Ikehara Collection: Norbert Wiener’s Japan Connections

By on August 4th, 2017 in Commentary, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

Introducing a New Archive

At IEEE-SSIT’s July 2016 conference on “Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century: Thinking Machines in the Physical World,” presenters from a variety of disciplines offered their thoughts on the diverse intellectual and cultural lineages that link Wiener’s work — and early cybernetics more broadly — to contemporary issues in technology studies. Topics spanned contexts ranging from engineering, physics, and biology to sociology, political science, and cultural studies. And, thanks to an unexpected and serendipitous connection with Osamu Hirota (soon-to-retire professor and director of the Quantum ITC Research Institute at Tokyo’s Tamagawa University), a previously unseen archive of material added a new historical dimension to our discussions. What I am calling “The Ikehara Collection” shows us one of cybernetics’ previously under-explored paths of influence: into the world of Japanese physics and information technology. It opens up exciting new possibilities for understanding how Wiener’s ideas have promulgated around the globe into the present.

Shikao Ikehara (see Figure 1) was one of Norbert Wiener’s early graduate students; he studied at M.I.T. throughout the 1920s, receiving his Bachelor’s degree in 1924 and his Ph.D. in 1930. As Wiener described Ikehara’s work from that time, he “was perfecting my methods in prime-number theory. … The result was to remove a difficult branch of mathematics from the latter years of graduate work and to make it valuable even in an advanced undergraduate course” [1, p. 135–136]. Ikehara’s and Wiener’s names are most famously linked on the prime number theorem they produced during that time — the so-called “Wiener-Ikehara” theorem, notice of which appeared in Japanese newspapers that hailed Ikehara as a “Shining” “World-Class Genius” (see Figure 2[2], [3]. The two remained in contact during the years after Ikehara completed his Ph.D., not only when he continued as an M.I.T. research associate in 1931 and 1932, but also after he returned to Japan in 1934 to take up a position as Assistant Professor at Osaka University’s Department of Science. As Wiener’s 1956 autobiography, I am a Mathematician indicates, this return was largely motivated by American hiring prejudice in the 1930s. “At that time,” Wiener tells us, “the engineer from Eastern countries did already exist in the United States, but he was a much rarer bird than he is today. The sales resistance I had met was more than we could overcome” (l, p. 135). (At the same time, Wiener’s Chinese student, Dr. Lee, was also forced to return to his home country.) So, back to Japan for Ikehara it was.
 Shikao Ikehara portrait.

Figure 1. Shikao Ikehara portrait.

Figure 2. Ikehara Genius headline.

Wiener visited Japan twice over the decades following Ikehara’s return to the country. The first trip was a short stay of about 10 days in the summer of 1935 when Wiener was en route with his family to take up a year-long fellowship at the National Tsing Hua University in Peiping, China (see Figure 3 and Figure 4). The second was a two-month lecture tour during the spring of 1956, when he was invited by the Japanese government-controlled broadcasting organization NHK and a group of nine different science and technology institutes (see Figure 5). Ikehara collected and saved a vast archive of documents pertaining to these two trips. When he passed away in 1984, he entrusted the letters, postcards, newspaper articles, magazine clippings, and photographs that made up this collection to his final graduate student, Hirota. Because Hirota believes that “these documents are historically important and very valuable to open to the public,” he has made a small preview available, first to attendees at the Melbourne conference and now also to readers of this publication. The eventual plan is to donate the full collection to the M.I.T. archives. The initial set of documents comprises a variety of genres: typed and handwritten correspondence from Wiener about both trips, Japanese newspaper articles and photographs covering details about the 1956 lecture tour, and media reflections on Wiener’s life and work that were published after his death in 1964 (see Figure 11).

copy of letter

Figure 3. Letter, May 16, 1935.

Figure 4. Note, June 16, 1935.

Figure 5. Dr. Wiener and cybernetics article.

Figure 6. Post-trip postcard.

Figure 7. Post-trip Peiping letter.

Figure 8.Post 1956 trip letter.

Figure 9. Dr. and Mrs. Wiener, “smacking lips” over Tempura.

Figure 10. Creator of artificial brain.

As a whole, this collection offers an important new data set and, to borrow from Wiener’s lexicon, a series of “feedback loops” that enable us to retrospectively confirm or adjust our understanding of different aspects of his life and professional relationships. Some of the documents corroborate the accounts already available to us in published form. Wiener’s 1935 impressions of the differences between the Japanese universities he visited offer a case in point here. As his autobiography recalls, he noticed that “the Tokyo (University) professors looked slightly down their noses at their associates at the lesser universities”; by contrast, his impression of the Osaka University mathematics department was much more enthusiastic: “it is from this group that many of the best Japanese mathematicians have come, such as Yoshida and Kakutani, who stand among the best mathematicians anywhere” (l, p. 184). A postcard from the Ikehara collection offers a near-perfect echo of these sentiments, and adds on a note of praise for his former student. Wiener writes to Ikehara: “The Osaka school of mathematics is one of the distinguished ones in the world and I see your hand in it very clearly” (see Figure 6).

By contrast, the collection’s very existence complicates our current perception of Wiener’s global legacy. From the accounts we have of Wiener’s international influence in publications. such as Flo Conway an Jim Siegelman’s biography, his connections to Asian countries are focused first and foremost on India (with China perhaps a distant second), and Japan doesn’t garner more than a cursory mention. Dark Hero of the Information Age contains a few paragraphs about the 1935 visit (a discussion that emphasizes the increasingly xenophobic politics of pre-WWII Japanese culture and security), and its reference to the second trip is buried as a minor clause in the middle of a sentence that glosses over an entire year: “(1954) was a turnaround year for Wiener. His time in India was so successful that he was invited back the following year. On his way home. he made a lecture tour of Japan and taught a summer course on cybernetics at UCLA” (my emphasis) [4, p. 87]. The evidence from Wiener’s published accounts of his own life bolsters this sense of Japan as a very minor site of engagement: I am a Mathematician includes only a one-page write-up of the first trip, and the book was in press before he returned in the 1950s.

Thanks to the Ikehara Collection’s new archival material though, a much more robust and rich story of Wiener’s Japan connections becomes visible. We get the full schedule of Wiener’s activities. We see the multiple articles that appeared in newspapers covering the trip. We understand the range of people and audiences with whom Wiener engaged during his two months in Japan. And we know that there’s even more out there. As Hirota notes, the Ikehara Collection contains “so many documents on Wiener’s activity in Japan and (the) USA” that the material we have available so far represents only a very “carefully select(ed)” sample [5].

Perhaps most significantly, the information, images, and anecdotes we encounter in this archive allow us to grasp underexplored dimensions of Wiener’s global influence across the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. The archive’s timeframe is particularly noteworthy, as it reminds us that Wiener’s relationship with Ikehara spanned the decades around World War II, when tensions between Japanese and American — read, Axis and Allied — political and military institutions ran high. Given this fact, the larger Ikehara collection offers the intriguing possibility of revising our understanding of the ways in which collaborative links between the scientific communities of Japan and the United States were able to adapt or endure during the tumultuous geo-political climate of the mid-twentieth century. As more of the collection’s texts make their way into academic and public circulation, perhaps we will gain insight into how Wiener and Ikehara managed to navigate a collegial relationship within that complicated milieu. Especially given our tendencies, in the present-day, to think in stark “us-versus-them” polarities and oppositions when we address issues surrounding the use of drones and security systems, or the tensions inherent in (local) policing protocol and (international) military deployment, the continuity of Wiener and Ikehara’s friendship and professional collaborations across the mid-twentieth century might well have something to teach us.

Their relationship certainly made possible new pathways for technological innovation that continue to flourish in the twenty-first century. Hirota is explicit in offering credit to the Wiener-Ikehara connection as a driving impetus behind his country’s burgeoning information technology industry: “after Wiener’s trip in Japan, many Japanese scientists had started to study Wiener’s work under the guidance of Professor Ikehara. These events founded the current prospect of the Japanese Information Technology. So we can say that Wiener opened (the) Japanese IT world” (my emphasis) [6]. Given Japan’s high-ranking status today as a leader in IT development, Wiener’s role as an inspiration or motivator to mid-twentieth-century Japanese scientists becomes all the more significant. The notion that these documents can make us newly aware of these international, cross-temporal lines of influence nicely encapsulates the historiographic value of Ikehara’s collection: in contrast to the lack of information about Wiener’s connections to Japan that has been available to scholars of twentieth-century science and technology studies, we can now identify important lineages of mentorship running between Wiener and the Japanese scientists he reached both in person and through Ikehara’s many years of instruction.

As you read through the selection of documents from the Ikehara Collection that we have included — perhaps struggling a bit to decipher Wiener’s scrawling handwriting, or squinting at the photographs as you try to figure out what, exactly, he and his wife are eating — I hope that you get a taste of the historian’s and the biographer’s excitement. History gets written, revised, improved, and deepened through the feedback loops that archives like this one provide. And here we are, more than 50 years after Wiener’s death, only just encountering a brand new treasure trove to explore.

Figure 11. Wiener obituary.


Heather Love is Assistant Professor of English, University of South Dakota, Vermillion, SD 57069; Heather.Love@usd.edu.

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All images used with permission of Ikehara Collection.