A graduate from Keio University, Koji Yamamoto studied eighteenth-century studies and history at the University of York, and subsequently held postdoctoral positions at London, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Paris and Cambridge. From April 2016, Koji has taken up an assistant professorship in business history at the Faculty of Economics, University of Tokyo. He works on the history of capitalism, and is a co-founder of PoETS, the monthly Political Economy Tokyo Seminar. He tweets at koji_hist.
When not in libraries, Koji enjoys cooking, reading, walking, swimming, and listening to jazz and classical music. He also loves cheesy J-pop from the 90s.
He will speak at the second Tokyo Humanities Cafe in September 2017.
1. Can you describe a turning point in your career?
Upon reflection, the key turning point was choosing my doctoral supervisor. At that point, it wasn't very clear why I chose to work with him, but he gave me the intellectual freedom to "follow my nose" (as it were), even at a time when I wasn't really sure what my research project was about.
As my research unfolded, it turned out that I could learn a lot from my supervisor - for example, what to do in archives, and how to connect what I find in archives with larger questions (in my case about capitalism). In order for that to happen, it was vital that we go back and forth between research questions and archival findings, without quite knowing how it all added up. I was able to plunge into this uncertain territory thanks to the patience of my supervisor.
So, in effect, I learned how to follow my curiosity first, and then find a larger story by "connecting the dots". This was a great experience. 2. What question are you currently exploring in your work?
I study the tangled relationships between enterprises and society, the market and morality in Britain between 1550 and 1750: a society that was becoming the "first industrial nation".
The questions that fascinate me include: How did private enterprises relate to the society in which they operated? Were they promoted as a means to solve societal and governmental problems? If they were promoted in that way, then what happened to these promises of public service?
These questions interest me because they were then, as now, important questions. Hence the final question: What might a "forgotten" history of responsible businesses tell us about today's capitalism?
3. Which artist or writer has had the most influence on you?
This is a difficult question. Can I dare say that I am fascinated more by the messy richness of life itself, rather than any individual writer(s) or artist(s) facing and producing meanings out of these "realities"?
When I was an undergrad, I read Goethe's Faust, and I've never forgotten what the devil in that book says about life: "All theory is grey, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.” I've always wanted to throw new light on this rich "tree of life".
4. What do you think is the value of the humanities?
Humanities research, at its best, enables us to appreciate what Goethe would call the evergreen richness of life. It humbles us when our arrogance makes us feel all too powerful; it empowers us when our desperation makes us feel quite powerless. Collectively, humanities research enables us to understand how we have come to inherit the world in which we live now, and also to imagine worlds that are very different from ours.
5. What does the future hold for your field?
The vitality of my field (early modern history) continues to surprise me. People used to tell me that those who are interested in culture and the lived experience of people can only tell us about details, but not explain "change". This, I think, is no longer the case. More and more research is being done to explore how collective actions of (often nameless) people came to shape and reshape norms and expectations, and eventually even social and political structures over time. So scholars in my field have begun to put people and lived experience back into the familiar big stories, such as Britain's transition from feudalism to capitalism.