Lisa Onaga

Senior Research Scholar (Sep 2017-Aug 2020)


Lisa Onaga works on the history of science and technology in Japan, with a focus on questions about the ownership and authorship of knowledge in relation to biological materiality at the interface of invertebrate and human life in agricultural, laboratory, and industrial settings. Her forthcoming monograph, Cocoon Cultures: The Entangled History of Biology and Silk in Modern Japan examines how the pursuit of the perfect silkworm cocoon served as a key means for exploring how genes and environments interact in sexually reproducing living things, during a period of Imperial commitment to foster industrial raw silk manufacturing and trade. This sociologically informed history of sericulture and genetics has given rise to a second project dedicated to the archipelagic peripheries of Japan. Under the working title of “Biomaterial Matters,” different historical interfaces among silkworms, plants, pathogens, humans, and silk are examined toward a suite of interdisciplinary histories. This work focuses on sites such as Amami Ōshima from the days of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, Taiwan during the colonial period, and other sites during the post-World War II era, in order to deepen a temporal understanding of experimental cultivation and uses of silk and their roles in constructing local, regional, or global claims to knowledge. These research interests are ultimately connected to questions about how knowledge about animals is made intelligible, for example, in terms of the histories of scientific methods used to date and describe animal-based proteins and fibers, or how animals have been rendered into resources for intellectual and societal problem-solving. Onaga received her PhD from Cornell University and was a member of the history faculty at Nanyang Technological University from 2012 until 2018 when she stepped down to undertake new responsibilities at the MPIWG. Previously, she was a fellow at the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics.


Onaga, L. May 2018. “Articulating Genba: Particularities of Exposure and its Study in Asia.” Special issue of positions: asia critique. Editor, with Harry Yi-Jui Wu. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Onaga, L. 2018. Measuring the particular: Low-dose Exposure to Radiation as Event and Experiment in the Genba. positions: asia critique. 26 (2): 266–304.

Onaga, L. 2017. Reconstructing the Linear No-Threshold Model in Japan: A Historical Perspective on the Technics of Evaluating Radiation Exposure. Technology and Culture. 58(1): 194-205. 

Onaga, L. 2015.  More than Metamorphosis: The Silkworm Experiments of Toyama Kametaro and his Cultivation of Genetic Thought in Japan’s Sericultural Practices, 1894-1918.  In New Perspectives on the History of Life Sciences and Agriculture, edited by Denise Phillips and Sharon Kingsland, 415–37. Springer International Publishing, 2015.
Onaga, Lisa. 2014. Ray Wu as “Fifth Business”: Deconstructing Collective Memory in the History of DNA Sequencing. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 46: 1-14.
Onaga, Lisa. 2010.  Toyama Kametaro and Vernon Kellogg: Silkworm Inheritance Experiments in Japan, Siam, and the United States, 1900-1912. Journal of the History of Biology 43: 215-264.


Anatomy of a Hybrid: The Entangled History of Biology and Silk in Modern Japan


Out of the Cabinet of Curiosities: Knowing Animals in the World


Proteins and Fibers: Scaffolding History with Molecular Signatures


The Body of Animals


No projects were found for this scholar.



A Market for Manuscripts: Scribal Production and Entertainment Literature in 19th Century Beijing


Proteins & Fibers Inquiry I: Animal Histories on the Proteomic Horizon


Encounters in Borderlands: Intersections of Life and Technology at Frankfurt Airport