The Moment

The Historical Arc of Genzo Shimadzu Sr. and Jr.


A life of science:

the origins of Shimadzu: educational physics and chemistry instruments

There is one product catalog remaining in the Shimadzu Foundation Memorial Hall. It is the Science Equipment Catalog List, published in 1882 (Meiji 15).
It features 110 types of laboratory equipment used in science classes, with illustrations. This single booklet epitomizes the passion for science of Shimadzu’s founder, Genzo Shimadzu Sr.

Shimadzu Corporation can be considered the birthplace of modern industry in Kyoto.
It has produced a Nobel laureate, and is a global enterprise with business operations in a variety of fields. Yet it began humbly, as a manufacturer of educational physics and chemistry instruments.

Educational Physics and Chemistry Instuments in Shimadzu Foundation Memorial Hall
Educational Physics and Chemistry Instuments in Shimadzu Foundation Memorial Hall

Genzo Shimadzu Sr. was born into the family of a craftsman of Buddhist altars. He left home at 21 and began his own business.
Eight years later, a major historical event occurred that represented a turning point for Japan and Kyoto. This was the Meiji Restoration, an event that involved the relocation of Japan’s capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. As a result, many aristocrats and government officials left Kyoto, a city that had flourished for a thousand years as the nation’s capital. At one point during this time, the population reportedly decreased by as much as 100,000 people.
Furthermore, this time was marked by a strong anti-Buddhist sentiment, and orders for Buddhist altars, his family’s main livelihood, fell sharply.
In fact, the only real advantage in Genzo’s favor was probably his geographic location.
The Kiyamachi-Nijo district, where Genzo started his business, was situated near a variety of industrial institutions. These had been established to boost Kyoto’s recovery by introducing the latest technologies from the West.

Kiyamachi Store, circa 1895
Kiyamachi Store, circa 1895

Immersed in the spirit of Western science that pervaded the district, Genzo began frequenting the Physics and Chemistry Research Institute (industrial testing center), a site where new technology was being introduced.
Here were examples of typographic printing, as well as glass, thread, and soap manufacture. Genzo had always been interested in new things, but seeing Western machinery and being exposed to Western scientific knowledge for the first time captured his heart.
The institute provided Genzo with a window on Western technology and expertise. But Genzo also likely glimpsed the future of Kyoto and Japan, as well as his own lifetime commitment to science.

Kyoto Prefectual Physics and Chemistry Research Institute
Kyoto Prefectual Physics and Chemistry Research Institute

Genzo absorbed knowledge enthusiastically by attending lectures in physics and chemistry at the Physics and Chemistry Research Institute, and participating in experiments. Afterwards, he set to work repairing and maintaining foreign equipment.
Genzo carefully studied each product from overseas as he repaired it with his nimble fingers.
As it so happens, this was also a period of educational promotion by Japan’s educational system. Until then, education had consisted primarily of reading, writing, and the abacus. But now, proponents began advocating the importance of the natural sciences. However, in those days, there was almost no educational equipment available in Japan for science education.
Equipment could not be imported as easily as it can today, and the cost would have been prohibitive. It was at this point that Genzo decided to manufacture physics and chemistry instruments himself, with the goal of making Japan a leader in science.
This decision marks the start of Shimadzu Corporation.

Dr. Wagener
Dr. Wagener

The Science Equipment Catalog List features 110 products in 5 categories.
To be capable of offering that many products a mere seven years after inception is astonishing in itself, but it is also remarkable that each product was available at three price levels.
Since many schools were struggling financially in those days, Genzo varied the materials in each product so that they could be utilized by as many people as possible.
What drove Genzo on was his desire for a life of science, and his single-minded determination to make it happen.

It was a sense of his calling and a passion for the future.

Science Equipment Catalog List
Science Equipment Catalog List