Scott O'Bryan

Associate Professor, Department of History

Associate Professor, East Asian Languages and Cultures

Department of History

IU; IU Bloomington

Full Biography

I am now focused in my research on environmental history and urban history, and my teaching in the History Department is organized around those themes as well, including a regular graduate colloquium in Global Environmental History, a deep introduction to the field for students working in any regional or other thematic area, and an undergraduate course called Confronting Catastrophe: Natural Disasters in World Environmental History. 

My chapter, "The Climatic Dilemmas of Built Environments: Tokyo, Heat Islands, and Urban Adaptation" (in Batten and Brown, eds., Environment and Society in the Japanese Islands, 2015) brings together my environmental and urban interests to explore the ways in which cities, by nature of their modern materialities and forms, act as their own of kind of landcape, influencing climate and weather much like any natural set of land or water forms, but one erected exceedingly quickly in geological time on top of existing geographic forms of much longer standing.

My current book project is a work of global environmental history that examines the history of horticulture and an expansive global trade in Japanese plants during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I am exploring how horticultural societies, landscape architects, botanical scientists, seed companies, and gardening hobbyists alike in the U.S., Australia, and Great Britain worked with Japanese botanical partners to drive a new global transfer of Japanese horticultural products as they sought species to ornament middle-class landscapes back home. The lust for acquiring exotic Japanese plants was cross-pollinated by Orientalizing cultural vogues among wealthy patrons of Japanese architecture, design, painting, and the decorative arts (and those who sought to emulate them among the striving middle classes) in Boston, Chicago, London, and Sydney. The ubiquitous familiarity—often invasively so—of japonica plant species in the backyards, forests, and abandoned lots of countries around the world is an environmental legacy of these Japanophilic botanical and cultural fixations. As foreign botanical searchers scoured Japan’s plant heritage, moreover, they found eager partners in their Japanese counterparts, who promoted plants and garden aesthetics from Japan as part of a modernizing desire to elevate Japanese botanical knowledge on the world scientific stage and Japanese botany as an equal companion to the "natural histories" of other nations. This project places Japan at the environmental and cultural center of a complex history of biotic transfer in its modern forms.

The book takes as its starting point an activist concern with the massive scale of the transfer of "exotic" ornamental plants species around the world during the twentieth century and with the cascading ecological effects these introductions have on local biological diversity and the intimate connections between plants on one side and insects (and thus other animal species) on the other. It uses the global history of Japanese plants to think about questions of slow-moving environmental disaster, precarity, and non-human species agency.

Earlier in my career, my interests revolved around the history of social science, political economy, consumption, population thought, and twentieth-century forms of statistical knowledge. In 2009, I published The Growth Idea: Purpose and Prosperity in Postwar Japan  (A Study of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University), University of Hawaii Press. The work is a conceptual history of growth as an object of social scientific knowledge during the mid-twentieth century and as a new analytical paradigm that came to govern the terms by which Japanese understood their national purposes and practiced their socio-economic policies. It narrates the intellectual history of a growthist ideal constructed within the ascendant discipline of mid-twentieth-century economics, deployed globally through U.S. institutions and postwar multilateral organizations, and put to political work by technocratic economists and many organs of the post-imperial state in Japan. 


Research Interests

  • Intellectual history of political-economics
  • Cultural, intellectual, and environmental history of modern Japan


  • M.A. at Yale University, 1992
  • Ph.D. at Columbia University, 2000

Courses Taught

Teaches courses in world environmental history, disaster studies, Japanese history, and the history of visual culture.

Recent undergraduate courses include the modern Japan survey as well as:

  • Confronting Catastrophe: Natural Disasters in World Environmental History
  • Environmental History of Japan and East Asia
  • Hiroshima: History, City, Event
  • Visual Culture of Modern Japan
  • History of Modern Japan

Graduate courses have included:

  • Global Environmental History (every other year)
  • Racial Empires in Modern Germany and Japan (co-taught)
  • Twentieth-Century Japan: Modernism and High-Modernism