Galka on Swanson, 'Spawning Modern Fish: Transnational Comparison in the Making of Japanese Salmon'

Heather Anne Swanson. Spawning Modern Fish: Transnational Comparison in the Making of Japanese Salmon. Culture, Place, and Nature Series. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022. Illustrations, maps. xv + 252 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-75038-5; $32.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-75039-2. 

Reviewed by Jonathan Galka (Harvard University)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

In Spawning Modern Fish, Heather Anne Swanson tells salmon stories, spanning wide swaths of time and broad geographies. Squarely situating her approach in the methods of multispecies ethnography, Swanson pursues the histories of salmon as their movements chart a course among sites across the Pacific Rim: Hokkaido, Japan; southern Chile; and the US Pacific Northwest. In the process, Swanson teases apart how ideas about eating, cultivating, conserving, and otherwise knowing salmon have conditioned human history in Japan. Swanson distills her inquiry with salmon into a guiding question: “how are political-economic structures lived as they change the structures of one’s cells?” (p. 7). She seeks to draw from and contribute to conversations in cultural anthropology, science and technology studies, and the environmental humanities.

Swanson elaborates three goals that emerge from under the banner of that guiding question. First, following Donna Haraway, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Zachary Caple, and others, Swanson wants to contribute to building a material humanities by examining how more-than-human worlds are embodied materially. “This book starts with bodily form.... It explores how humanists might better notice the histories of social relations that shape the forms of bodies and landscapes” (p. 7). In doing so, Swanson argues that we might be better poised to cultivate what Tsing calls “arts of noticing”—methods for grounding accounts of changing environments in proliferating, unscalable stories—within critical landscape ecologies.[1] Second, in pursuing how social relations are embedded in bodies, Swanson hopes to broaden the terms on which political economy and biology can engage meaningfully in multispecies scholarship. And third, she builds on work that emphasizes the necessary situatedness of multispecies ethnography by “describing the specificity of a nature culture assemblage” (pp. 8-9).

To achieve the above goals, Swanson innovates two approaches within multispecies ethnography. One is to re-center the nation-state, which, in the context of Japan, makes sense. Japan, as Swanson explains, was never made the colony of another state. Rather, the forms of colonialism that Japan undertook in its quest for modernization, both internal and external, borrowed from and also doubled back onto those of other colonial states. Japan pursued colonial goals with the explicit aim of elaborating and proving a thoroughly modern Japaneseness.

Swanson introduces her other main analytical intervention as a revisitation and reworking of the concept of comparison. As an idea, comparison is one that is thoroughly familiar to anthropologists, for whom comparisons have been “modes of thinking that shape our ethnographic descriptions and interpretations” (p. 16). But Swanson takes comparison as an ethnographic object, following from the work of Timothy Choy and others who have described comparison as a “world-making practice” (pp. 16-17). Swanson says, “I reserve the term comparison for the types of comparative practices and challenges with which salmon become entangled but in which they do not engage—those that invoke concepts such as the west, modernity, and nation-states” (p. 19). Where comparison might easily become a runaway ethnographic focus, particularly as ricocheting comparisons have the potential to transcend both actors’ and analysts’ categories, Swanson successfully wrangles the object with an effect that is moving, analytically powerful, and informative of how salmon have shaped and been shaped by projects central to—yet still, importantly, excessive of—Japanese state modernization.

In chapter 1, Swanson situates comparison. Comparison in Japanese salmon worlds is prefigured by, but also exceeds, lines drawn between East and West, Hokkaido and Honshu, nation-state and the Other, modern and unmodern. Japan is caught up in comparing with the West, but as a nation and modernizing force itself, it does so in creative ways. Chapter 2 takes us to the landscape of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, to understand how comparisons with the frontier American West enabled violent transformation by the Japanese state of Hokkaido into a new kind of place. The island became a space of pastures, farms, technical schools, and communities of indigenous Ainu forcibly rendered domestic and removed from their traditional lifeways. For Swanson, the creation of new human and nonhuman arrangements that could be interpreted the world over as indisputably modern and, crucially, Japanese, was achieved by negotiating multiple kinds of comparison.

Chapter 3 picks up the narrative after World War II, when Hokkaido became a site from which to make new types of comparisons, this time through lenses of development aid, international cooperation, and fishery supply chains. Swanson tells a story of Japanese policies of creating immigrant communities under strategic national policy, with the goal of making the resources that Japan consumed at home. One such project was the salmon project undertaken between Chile and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The creative capacity that Swanson sees as inherent within comparative practice here makes for beautiful ethnographic encounters and turns of phrase, for example, how one Japanese scientist, laden with idiosyncratic ideas of faith, time, and interspecies relation, “built webs of dreams through knots of comparison” in his quest to get salmon to breed in Chilean rivers (p. 89). Chapter 4 keeps with JICA to examine how the failed introduction of Japanese salmon to Chilean rivers was rebranded as a national success, by focusing on how the creation of technicians and entrepreneurs facilitated the culturing of Chilean salmon, which, when imported to Japan, became favored in Japanese households over Hokkaido salmon.

In an interlude, Swanson transports us back to Hokkaido, where an abundance of Chilean salmon have opened space for Hokkaido salmon to transform from a mass-produced and essential source of food for Japanese people into a different kind of animal—one that is wild, with localized genetic traits and unique behaviors that are in need of conservation. One great takeaway here, in the frame of critical landscape ecology, is that “conservation projects in one place can be indirectly entangled with practices of environmental destruction in geographically distant locales” (p. 113). Back on Hokkaido, in chapter 5, we follow comparisons among fishing communities who strain at social boundaries. Swanson shows us how people, once stuck in a place on account of salmon-fishing structures and cultural expectations, make novel forms of life that are at once local and modern. These tensions are created by knowing fish at the same time as abstracted commodities and as individual beings.

Chapter 6 follows up on Hokkaido’s wild salmon populations, which have accreted new meaning in the terms of Western fisheries science that now privilege wild genetics. Swanson reveals fascinating comparisons, where increasingly North American fisheries regulators view the Japanese as inattentive to wild salmon, though Japanese fisheries scientists assert that such a view is reductive of the differences between kinds of salmon. “Insisting on such historicity,” says Swanson, “is to insist on imbrication” (p. 165). Lastly, chapter 7 brings us back to Hokkaido’s Ainu and demonstrates how important the removal of Ainu access to wild salmon (and concomitant hatchery introduction) was to fracturing the Ainu world under Japanese colonization. Swanson narrates this story of multispecies encounter beautifully and brings into ethnographic view what both the persistence of wild salmon in Hokkaido’s channelized streams and Ainu people mean for one another. Their resistance to homogenization in projects of Japanese modernity has been a multispecies struggle.

In the coda to the book, Swanson transports us a final time to the Columbia River basin, where she grew up and where she once wanted to focus her study on human-salmon worlds. Meditating on Japan’s inherent comparability versus the Columbia’s construction as singular and incomparable, she introduces the otolith—the inner ear bone of fish that accretes environmental events and stress in its layers—as one site to turn to in locating comparisons “that are overlooked in nations that are still reluctant to be haunted” (p. 196). Comparison, in this book, attunes Swanson to the quiet pulses, echoes, and specters of multispecies meaning within multinational histories. The coda is an evocative call to pursue comparisons into more-than-human social and biological worlds and paves the way for exciting future work.

Altogether, Spawning Modern Fish succeeds resoundingly in its intentions. It tells the story of how Japanese salmon became with, and alongside, projects in the service of the Japanese state in ways that were complementary but never reducible to one another. Hewing closely to comparative practices as they have unfolded from Hokkaido, to the Pacific Northwest, to Chile, and beyond, yields a beautiful and nuanced multispecies story. The argument is most compelling when Swanson tracks how salmon mediate local ecological or social encounters with large, multinational political and economic projects. At several points, and indeed in the book’s guiding questions, Swanson indicates an abiding interest in how social life becomes embedded in cellular, genetic, bodily, and behavioral structures. Though salmon in all of their idiosyncrasies lend themselves well to comparisons of these kinds, I was not left convinced that the book’s explorations of changing salmon biology furthered the argument as strongly as other threads did.

Having said that, Eben Kirksey states on the book’s back cover that Spawning Modern Fish is “the best book using the theory and methods of multispecies ethnography that I have read in years.” I have to agree. Given the growing and increasingly interdisciplinary interest in multispecies methods over the past ten-to-fifteen years, this book will be of great interest to courses and students in environmental and cultural anthropology and history, as well as in transnational political economy, and East Asian studies. Because of its clarity and range, the book will also be of interest to many other kinds of readers, including, for example, the salmon biologists whom Swanson also hoped to address. This is one more gift of the book. Because it addresses so many audiences effectively, Swanson’s study will help us realize one of multispecies ethnography’s hopes and promises. We can think with salmon toward how new, better, and more just relations among uneven arrangements of humans and nonhumans might be built.


[1]. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 37.

Citation: Jonathan Galka. Review of Swanson, Heather Anne, Spawning Modern Fish: Transnational Comparison in the Making of Japanese Salmon. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.

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