Data: Personal v. Historical

A recent initiative in the US to limit access to birth and death records [via] along with other personal data would severely limit the ability of historical and geneaological researchers, not to mention the epidemiological studies mentioned in the article.

This reminded me that I’d meant to blog a long time ago about Sharon Domier’s H-Japan announcement that a similar law in Japan passed last year was hindering historical researchers. I’ve removed a few of the URLs she provided because they don’t seem to work anymore, but I’d be happy to provide them if anyone wants to root around in the archives.

The Japanese government recently enacted a Personal Information Protection Law that is having a significant impact on both publishing and research. In Japanese it is called Kojin Joho hogo ho.

The Japan Media Review is a good place to read about the effect of the new law on publishing. Here is an article in English:

What this means to libraries is that many are withdrawing meibo (registers) that contain personal information. School yearbooks are off limits as are many biographical registers. If you subscribe to online databases that include biographical information, you may find that the content has changed significantly in order to comply with the law. Many of the librarians that I have talked to in my recent travels are grappling with how to preserve materials and be in compliance with the law.

For an article that explains how one library handled historical material (court cases from the Meiji-Taisho period), please see this Asahi Shinbun article in Japanese. [I can’t seem to find this, either at Asahi or in Lexis-Nexis, sorry]

Please note that libraries are removing the bibliographic records from OPACs so that there is no public trace of the materials that are problematic.

As I replied to Domier at the time, My research probably will be affected, but I haven’t done a Japanese archive trip in a while, so I can’t be sure. It sounds like some of what I had access to — official records with names and addresses — might well be included, so I’m sitting on a stash of “gray market” evidence. One of my concerns — aside from the obvious — is that research already done with these records will now be unverifiable by future researchers. Have you run into a problem in the last year or so? Let us know.

This is a serious issue: privacy and personal information protection are indeed valuable principles worthy of care and protection. But there has to be some way to preserve those principles without seriously compromising our ability to do legitimate research.


  1. It seems odd that libraries are restricting access. In the U.S., at least libraries could not be forced to withdraw “public domain” data from circulation without some very big changes. Limiting access to state data would seem to be simpler. How does this work in Japan?

  2. As I understand it, most of what the libraries are withholding is the same kind of records whose access at state sites is being restricted. In other words, it’s a full-press reduction in the “public domain” category.

    A lot of the archives in Japan are state-run in some form or another. My best resources in Yamaguchi were the Prefectural History Compilation Office and the Prefectural Library Archives. Similarly, the premier research archives in Tokyo are associated either with the Diet — i.e. government — or with Tokyo University, a public institution.

    I don’t know how this would affect private collections or non-public university archives, particularly.

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