The Japan Memory Project

Three visiting scholars (Sakakibara Sayoko, Roy Ron, and Wakabayashi Haruko) from the University of Tokyo’s Historiographical Institute gave a talk this week at Harvard about their massive Japan Memory Project. The project consists of a collection of online databases of mostly pre-modern primary sources, including the 『大日本資料』 and 『大日本故文書』as well as many other important collections of historical documents.

Many of these sources have been digitized through the project and their indexes can be searched online. Also, many of the documents, maps and other visual sources can be viewed and downloaded directly from their site, but depending on the database, may only be available to scholars visiting the institute.

After outlining the structure of the organization and its major departments, the presenters demonstrated the online databases, which have access to an incredible amount of materials for those doing research on pre-modern Japanese history. Not only are many of the materials available online for full text searches, but images such as some of their map collections have detailed commentary and explanations.

The presenters argued that over the last few years there has been a considerable shift in the thinking of the institute towards moving materials online and providing more open access to these materials. Whereas getting into the institute in the past was apparently something of considerable difficulty, now anyone working with a professor and university they “recognize” can get access by filling out an application. While I still find this elitist for an institute which is close to being a public Japanese archive (their handout says that the “responsibility for compiling historical materials [was] transferred from the Cabinet” to the university in 1888), I’m glad that things are gradually opening up. Apparently the reason that some of the materials are not full text online (such as one Kamakura period archive that was demonstrated) is because they have “copyright” problems that force them to limit access to those who visit the institute. While I am aware of the fact that even for very old works, there exist complicated rights involved with photographs of materials and when archives are held by institutions that only allow access to them on a kind of contractual basis, it absolutely flabbergasts me that these kind of restrictions last. I gladly accept the label of radical if I may be permitted to say that such legal obstacles to research, scholarship, and the increased online spread of information need to be swept away.

On the technical side, their site seems light weight yet full of features, although it apparently slows down in the mid-afternoon here for a while as they update their databases in Japan. Unfortunately, some of their programming was a little unprofessional, leaving some pages (such as the name/email registration page) without a proper header to indicate the correct page encoding. This results in occasional gibberish for non-Japanese browsers. The text pages that are returned on searches are high detail TIF graphic files, not text or searchable PDFs, which means that we can’t manipulate the text on download. Also, text pages in graphic form are displayed one page at a time. The maps and graphics are very nice high resolution graphics, but we were told that some of the resources require plug-ins for use. I am strongly against the use of unnecessary plugins, as they are often not compatible across operating systems or browsers.

One audience member brought up the important question of how to cite these materials in academic publications. Roy Ron answered that he had seen others do this and it was easy to offer the web address of the institute. However, I believe this issue is actually very important and it seemed to me that the institute had not really given this much thought so far. I asked whether there were permanent addresses for the specific resources. While Mr. Ron did show that copying and pasting the link into a new window for one of the portraits gave the same image, some of that information contained cookie data. Also, it is at the mercy of future server updates and such, though Mr. Ron assured us that he didn’t think the links would change in the future. The experiences of many other such online projects show, however, that such optimism is not to be trusted. As another audience member and I argued, there exist registration services to establish a “Digital Object Identifier” (DOI) that can permanently register a graphic, text, etc. even though the actual location on the web might change over time. One such example of a registration service for academic research is CrossRef.

One audience member asked if it was possible to search multiple institutes as there are a number of databases online with similar resources that involve a lot of overlap. The answer the presenters gave was an honest one. These days, they said, it is a race to get the information online, with places like Waseda also doing similar projects. Mr. Ron said there is no cooperation or division of labor and that many of these institutes get money through the government’s COE (Center of Excellence) program which gives them money for five years. I was reminded of my own experience at Waseda as a research assistant for their COE for Contemporary Asian Studies. They were working to get several conferences done, publish an English language journal, and always anxious to produce their center’s “results” to the Ministry of Education. There is a fierce struggle for funding and I think there are a lot of structural obstacles to smooth cooperation between universities, archives, and other such institutes.

In response to a question about the accuracy of the texts that were being inputted they said that almost everyone at the institute was somehow involved in getting the materials online. The questioner said that similar projects in China might involve two typists working together in parallel followed by as many as five checks by editors afterwards. The presenters said that they outsourced the inputting job but then spent a lot of time working over the inputed materials, as it was done by someone without academic expertise in the field.

This resource is wonderful and I hope that they will continually open up more full text resources to outsiders via the web. I also hope to see a better organization of the data which will allow more flexibility in remote access, citation, and perhaps downloadable text. Those of us studying modern history can only look on in envy as I have heard of nothing comparable in scope for modern materials in Japanese history.


  1. It was noted in the above trackback that perhaps my article seems a little hard (「なかなか厳しいツッコミを受けた」). Rereading what I wrote, I do note that my criticisms outnumber my compliments. I hope that I can clarify a little here: 1) The presentation was, I think very well received, with some members of the audience ‘oo’ing and ‘aaa’ing as they saw how they could access these amazing materials online. I think the presenters came with the goal of introducing this wonderful resource to researchers here I think they succeeded wonderfully in this. 2) Almost all of the minor things I brought up here are, in the end, technical issues, which I mentioned from my perspective of someone interested in issues like online archives, open access, etc. I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful it is, and how much work there must be involve in the process of digitizing and hosting a huge online collection of historical materials. The institute is not the only one putting materials online, but I am still very happy to see them embrace it fully and go through the extra effort to share information on their efforts. In fact, it is out of respect for that that I wanted to share information from their presentation to other readers of 井の中の蛙.

  2. Your report on Shiryo Hensanjo presentation held at Harvard is fair and useful. (I happened to be one of hosts of the event.) I would think Hensanjo people would find this useful. Hensanjo holds best primary resources on pre-modern Japan, which is semi-national archives and shold ee accessible for anyone as you pointed out.

    I also find your notes on DOI and CrossRef very interesting as a librarian (at Harvard-Yenching). We certainly need some devices like DOI and CrossRef to maintain access to growing and changing digital resources. I just hope we settle the best one rather than choosing available one for immediate needs. It seems most of Japanese institutions who are developing web resources are not yet considering this issue. I will ask my coleagues in Japan how they are dealing with this issue.

    Thanks for your report with useful insights!

  3. Dear Kuniko Yamada McVey,

    It was very kind of you to leave a comment here. I am very exciting about the fact so many of these resources are coming online. I have no preference on the registration system, and I’m not very familiar with the competitors for CrossRef, but I will be following the world of open access and online archives with great interest! Thanks again for stopping in!

    Another fantastic site which talks about Open Access and the digitization of resources a lot on the web is:

    I hope perhaps I’ll get a chance to say hello to you perhaps some day at the H-Y library.

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