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of mostly pre-modern primary sources, including the 『大日本資料』 and 『大日本故文書』as well as many other important collections of historical documents.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.
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Self Intro: Kim Youngsoo

現在東京大学 総合文化研究科 地域文化研究に所属しています。今年は修士2年目なので、12月までは忙しいと思います。その後本格的に参加しようと思います。

Why did the Mongols Attack Hakata Bay Twice?

I’ve been doing Japanese history for fifteen years, now, and Chinese history for a decade, and I’ve never figured out why the Mongols, after their first attack failed, would make landfall at the exact same spot where they made landfall before and the Japanese had been building fortifications for over half a decade. Didn’t they have any advance intelligence? Was the cross-strait navigation really that difficult that no other option existed? Did the Koreans not care if the Mongols succeeded, and steer them into the waiting Japanese defenders? (OK, I know that’s not terribly likely, as thousands of Koreans were forced into service in the invasions as well.) This has always troubled me. Successive typhoons, the kamikaze, don’t bother me because freak natural occurences are beyond our ken or control. Inexplicably dumb human behavior troubles me.

Translation Prize and Gatekeeper Issues

A colleague of mine, Prof. Larry Rogers, just won the 2004 Keene Center translation award for his book of translations of modern stories about Tokyo neighborhoods. I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment substantively (though I want to look at it as a possible text for next year’s 20th century Japan course), but colleagues who have read it praised it highly, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

I’d almost forgotten such prizes exist, though, and that got me thinking. We live in a world of unprecedented transparency: it’s almost as easy to follow Japanese news in English as in Japanese, for example, and rough machine translation of Western languages is now so commonplace that it’s a free function of Google. I know language skills are still important — the realization three years ago that we had a desperate need for Arabic, Persian, Farsi, and other Central Asian and Middle Eastern languages still hangs over us — and translators (some of my best friends….) still make a pretty good living, apparently.

There are still gatekeepers, and I’m one of them, but it seems like our role is shifting from producing information to interpreting it. I know that it has never been purely one or the other: any really good historical research on Japan is still going to include materials which have never really been addressed in English before (really great historical research includes materials never dealt with in Japanese, either), and the quality of primary source translations is still one of the hallmarks of excellent scholarship. Translation, even paid technical translation, is still a kind of interpretation, and there is always a selective principle involved.

Perhaps what I’m experiencing is the widening of the gate: the gatekeepers still exist — may always exist — but there are many more of us. Our individual authority is greatly diminished by the success of our scholarly predecessors and parallel migrations of people, hobbies, money, goods and services. This is a very good thing: one of the reasons I went into this field was to rectify the paucity of understanding of Japanese history (and contemporary issues, though I’m less interested in those as I’ve become more an historian than a Japan-hand). The job is not done, not by a long, long shot, but the resources available are much richer and denser and higher quality than existed when I started this journey two decades ago.

Think about it: Columbia University has an academic unit named after one of the great translators and interpreters of Japan, a pioneer in the field but someone who is still publishing. The award this year went to a scholar from a fourth-tier school (my own, thank you very much), when thirty years ago fourth-tier schools hardly had Asianists, much less really good Japanese literary scholars. That reminds me of a talk I heard over the summer by AAS President Mary Elizabeth Berry:

Berry’s talk was not the traditional AAS President’s address, erudite and scholarly. It was a rallying cry for Asian studies scholars to envision an academy in which Asian studies faculty’s share of the total resources was roughly proportional to the scale and importance of Asia in the world. She drew stark contrasts with European (particularly French and British) studies, but was careful to point out that we should try to avoid making it a fight over shrinking resources, but a redirection and expansion of the curriculum in more meaningful directions. We have, she argued, gone from nearly nothing to our present state — kind of marginal, but at least represented — in three decades or so, and we should consider the next stage — transition to properly proportional representation — a multi-decade process. We also need to make Asia more of a mainstream subject: whereas now European studies are considered essential background for any well-rounded scholar, Asian studies are an extra. But it’s impossible to do meaningful comparative, or even narrowly analytical work, if your only models are European/American.

We do need high quality translations, and prizes to highlight the work we do. We have come so far, but we are still so far from where we ought to be. We are still gatekeepers, and that is part of the problem: the gate is still there, still relatively narrow.

Temporary Suspension of “The Country is Burning”

A comic series tracking the life of a bureaucrat in early Showa Japan has been suspended because of its September 16th and 22nd editions that contained descriptions of Japanese soldiers massacring civilians in Nanjing, China. The comic, which is by Hiroshi Motomiya (本宮ひろ志) is called “The Country is Burning” (国が燃える) and is published in the “Weekly Young Jump” magazine (「週刊ヤングジャンプ」). The Japan Times reports that 37 members of local assemblies protested because “the massacre was presented as if it really happened.” However, both that article and mention of this in an Asahi article seem to indicate that the comic was suspended because of a problematic photograph. The magazine is looking into the use of “inappropriate materials” (「不適切な資料を引用していた」). You can track this in the Japanese media via Google’s news service.

Many Japanese, even those who are not enthralled by the delusions of a few revisionist historians who reject the existence of a massacre outright, wonder why the Nanjing massacre issue is still so full of energy and emotion, especially among the Chinese. I think part of the answer is that, as Joshua Fogel has said in a historiographical work on the massacre, “Of all [the] massive, man-made atrocities, only in the case of the Nanjing Massacre has a whole school – actually, several – developed that completely denies or significantly downplays it.” (p. 4) The local assembly members above are a good example, as are the authors in a recent Bungei Shunjū article I have written about. Fortunately, there are historians in Japan and elsewhere who are making it more and more difficult to play these games, thanks in part to the oral testimonies of former soliders. I wrote about and translated a few quotes from one such recent work on 102 former soldiers in Nanjing which is available in Japanese and I recently saw it in Chinese translation at a bookstore in Beijing.

A Parliamentarian’s Weapon of Choice

I am afraid that most of my postings for the foreseeable future will be snippets from the basic readings on modern Japanese history that are taking up much of my time in this first year of my PhD. Today I’m reading an old classic by Peter Duus, Party Rivalry and Political Change in Taishô Japan. In his description of the rise of party discipline in the 1920s Duus dispels any impression that the Diet had become a place for civil exchanges:

By the 1920’s fights and physical violence became a normal part of Diet debates…The nameplates of the Diet members, originally movable, were nailed to the desks, because they made handy and exceedingly damaging implements of offense. (18)

Japanese Pride and Influence

If you’ve studied Japan for even a few years, it becomes clear that Japanese are very sensitive about Nobel prizes. They haven’t won a lot of them, it seems, and it bothers them; many of “their” winners were actually working outside of Japan, which also bothers them.

I don’t know if it will help or hurt Japan’s self-image, but a Japanese was recently honored by the Ig Nobel prize committee (honoring those who have “done things that first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK.”) with the 2004 Ig Nobel PEACE award: “Daisuke Inoue of Hyogo, Japan, for inventing karaoke, thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”

By the way, Japan won an Ig Nobel in Chemistry in 2003, for a metallurgical study of a bronze statue that does not attract pigeons and in 1999 for a spray which, when applied to men’s underwear, illuminates signs of infidelity. Japan won another Peace citation in 2002 for the invention of the Bow-Lingual dog bark translator. In 1997, Japanese shared a biology prize for gum-chewer brainwave studies, and were sole winners of the Economics prize for the invention of the Tamagotchi virtual pet. The list goes on; in fact, I think Japan might be one of the most frequently cited non-anglophone countries, though I’m not actually going to tally it up to find out.

Yes, it’s intended as satire (though Mr. Inoue did attend the ceremony this year, and you’d be surprised how many honorees do) but it points out two interesting things. First, honors and prizes are only rough measures of anything. Second, Japan’s effect on the world is not only noteworthy, but has been noted.

Joint Press Conference Predictions: Little Asia

It’s not a debate, in any meaningful sense of the word, unless they break the rules. It’s a joint press conference, and the only thing that makes it interesting is that they will be in the same room and might react to each other (within prescribed limits). But it’s great political theater, and there are a lot of people who really do seem to care about how the candidates perform (and that is the right word) under these conditions, conditions which are relevant only to past and future debate-like appearances.

That said, I have a few predictions about how the Thursday debate, on Foreign Policy, will go.

  • Japan will be mentioned, at most, twice: once as a member of the coalition of the willing (bribed, not bullied), and once in regard to the Six-Party North Korean nuclear crisis negotiations.
  • China, the largest country in the world, will be mentioned only in connection with North Korea. They won’t talk about (mostly because they won’t be asked about) their rapid industrial growth or consumer growth (and rapidly rising demand for oil), our import-export imbalance, their strategic position, Taiwan (ok, there’s about a 1/5 chance Taiwan could come up), internal ethnic tensions, rising nationalism, or the recent shift in power from (rather US-friendly) Jiang Zemin to (Euro-friendly) Hu Jintao. Our China and Taiwan policies have had exactly one noteworthy shift since Nixon-Kissinger — dropping human rights issues because they weren’t listening anyway — and it isn’t likely to change anytime soon unless China does something dramatic.
  • India, the second largest country in the world, might be mentioned in connection with its tensions with Pakistan over Kashmir and nuclear weapons, but otherwise we’ll have to wait until they talk about the economy, when outsourcing will come up.
  • South Korea will get the usual mention if North Korea comes up, as well as a mention if military force redistribution is raised.
  • North Korea will almost certainly be discussed, which will make Kim Jong Il very happy, particularly as neither of them seem inclined to say (or do) anything concrete. I doubt Kerry will contrast North Korea and Iraq policy but it would be fun to see how the spin on that played out if he did.
  • Vietnam….. boy, I hope not.
  • South and East Asia will not get any other substantive mentions.
  • A few other Asia-related topics they won’t talk about:
    • HIV/AIDS (except perhaps with regard to promises to Africa that were not kept), either Thai successes or the coming explosion in China and India
    • SARS and the threat of new communicable diseases
    • immigration policy (that’ll be a domestic issue, if at all, and mostly Mexico)

I’d love to be wrong. [crossposted at Cliopatria]

Post-event update: Aside from a mention of Koizumi’s upcoming Iraqi Donors’ Conference, I was pretty much on the money. Oh, well.

Self-Introduction: Luck and Curiousity

My name is Jonathan Dresner, and I consider myself a very lucky man. I had no particular interest in Japan or history in High School, until I spent a year in Nagoya. I then became interested in Japan, but still wasn’t interested in history: after finishing up a degree in Japanese language, I decided, in an act which seems in retrospect incomprehensibly uninformed, to take up the study of history as a way to answer my questions about contemporary Japanese society. I had never liked history in high school, didn’t care for it much in college. I did have an interesting teacher during my junior year at the Keio International Center, a classical Japanese Marxist who was less impressed with the Great Buddhas than he was interested in the number of people who died producing them.

Still, I applied to graduate schools in history, and after turning down Hawai’i’s East-West Center as “too far from home” I decided to go to Harvard. I had no idea what I was doing. Now I admit that I’d always been a nerd, but graduate school was nerd heaven: spending all of my time studying the things I was interested in, with lots of other people interested in the same things! Though I didn’t entirely realize it at the time, since I had so little training in history, studying with Albert Craig, Hal Bolitho and Akira Iriye (and later, Andy Gordon) was a real treat. My initial idea was to study the early development of Japanese views of foreigners, particularly Jews, by studying journalism and education as the pathways of the formation of non-elite opinions.

Another stroke of luck: a failed relationship. Seriously: an offhand comment by my advisor, Albert Craig, in reference to my grad-school girlfriend led me to realize that I could study Japanese emigration as a concrete example of information gathering, processing and decision-making by non-elites with regard to foreigners and overseas conditions. At that point my perspective shifted from a cultural/intellectual historian to something more like a social historian. I also followed her to Berkeley for two years, which was a dumb thing to do for a relationship that wasn’t that healthy, but which allowed me to study in a very different department with very different methods, and to work with Andrew Barshay, Irwin Scheiner and especially Mary Elizabeth Berry, as well as soaking up a great deal of Asian American studies (in which field I’ve done most of my book reviewing).

Somewhere between Berkeley and Harvard and Yamaguchi, I realized that the sources I needed for my cultural/anthropological study didn’t exist. I also realized that the answer to my initial questions were actually pretty easy and pretty clearly laid out in existing scholarship. But I did archival research in Yamaguchi, where, in another stroke of luck, the Prefectural History Compilation office was in the process of working on their Modern Sources collection. So I would go into the office, and they would give me an index of the sources they’d catalogued, and I’d pick out the ones I wanted…. Aside from the writer’s block, graduate school was great. Only took me twelve years, start to finish. In the end, my research was about local history, global migration, economics and politics, big businesses and former peasants, and there are about three different directions I want to take this research. More about that another time.

Some of that time was also spent teaching, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I really, really like doing that, too. Talk about luck. Teaching has required that I become much more of a generalist than my graduate courses and reading prepared me for. In the process, though, I’ve realized that I’m not just interested in Japan, but in history as a discipline, in world history as a field of study in itself, and in history education. I’ve always taught as a generalist: 1/3 of my teaching has been either Western Civilization or World History surveys, and Japan-related courses have never been more than 1/3 of my teaching. I love the broad view, the sweep of world history, the comparative exercises, the interactions and cross-fertilization: this is part of why I am a member of the group weblog Cliopatria, part of the History News Network project. My initial impulse to get into history was to understand the present, and I still believe that history is the field which most successfully integrates all the social sciences and, though it remains more art than science, best explains who and where we are today.

As much fun as I’m having as a generalist, I also want to be — need to be, professionally and personally — a specialist. So, I’m here.

Self Intro: Rod Wilson

I am a graduate student in East Asian history at Stanford University and since the fall of 2003 a research student with the Architecture Department at Hosei University in Tokyo. My dissertation research is focused on the environmental and social history of Tokyo’s Sumida River from the 1850s to the 1950s.

On this blog I imagine most of my postings will relate to Tokyo, its history, and its environment as well as to the perennially fascinating and frustrating debates about Japan’s role in the Asia Pacific War. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

The China History Group Blog

This is the new China history group blog at I’m in the process of putting together a great group of students/scholars of China’s history for this blog and will make an announcement on the other FrogInAWell blogs and on the domain’s home page. Come back in spring of 2005.

UPDATE: The China history group blog will be launching this month, June 2005! Stay tuned for more info!

Self Intro: K. M. Lawson

My name is Konrad Mitchell Lawson and later this month I will be starting a PhD in history in the United States. I am interested in issues related to treason, traitors, and collaboration in the modern history of East Asia.

During my masters degree, I studied International Affairs and have long had an interest in Sino-Japanese relations. Since then my interests have broadened to include Korea. On this blog, I think most of my postings will be related to modern Japanese history but also how Japan fits into the larger regional and global history of the 20th century. I am most familiar with the 大正 and 昭和 periods of modern Japanese history.

I will mostly be posting in English but will frequently include quotes from various sources in Japanese, occasionally with translation. Feel free to comment in Japanese or English. For those who want to read more, my personal blog can be found here.

Welcome to The Korea History Group Blog

Welcome to 우물 안 개구리, the newest addition to Frog in a Well. This new academic group blog is primarily focused on the study of the history of Korea, broadly defined, but some of our contributors will be writing from the perspective of other fields.

This is the sister blog to 井の中の蛙, or Frog In a Well – Japan, focusing on Japanese history, as well as 井底之蛙, or Frog In a Well – China, focusing on Chinese history. The weblog’s name 우물 안 개구리 is originally from a Chinese proverb that comes from the writings of Zhuangzi, one of the founders of what we now call Daoism (In the Burton Watson translation of his Basic Writings the story behind this proverb can be found in Section 17 “Autumn Floods” on pages 107-8). A frog tries to convince a turtle to join him in his wonderful well, of which he is a master. After trying to get in and getting stuck, the turtle withdraws and tells the frog instead of how deep and wide the sea is. The frog is left dumfounded. The proverb, which grew out of this Daoist fable, has come to represent a state of limited vision and even ignorance — of not being able to see outside one’s own immediate environment.

Our collaborative weblogs here begin from this position of humility, and we look forward to a useful and lively exchange of ideas and perspectives on the study of Korean history.

Our starting contributers are each graduate students or professors studying Korea and have agreed to share some of their ideas, discoveries, and other comments online here. I will invite each of them to introduce themselves so you may learn a little more about their respective interests and background and will then add them to the list of authors in the side bar. Information on how to contact us is also available in a link from the sidebar.

Let us hope that this new weblog, which will eventually be a multilingual Korean and English weblog, will not only make a useful contribution to online discourse about Korean history but also catches the interest of other academics who may have yet made the plunge to share their thoughts and research directly online. For those who are interested, below is a more detailed description of the goals, audience, and content for this weblog.


1) CONTENT – To bring together graduate students and scholars who study Korea on a single group blog to share information about their own research, passing discoveries they have made, and an opportunity to discuss and critique current research and scholarship in our field. In addition to our own research, we may end up posting links to other articles, write reviews of books read or presentations attended, make comments on interesting passages found in the archives, and information on useful resources available to those interested in studying Korea etc.

This is primarily a weblog about the history of Korea but we will be welcoming contributors from other fields or who are working between them. Some of us already dabble in literature, anthropology, and other areas and all of us can benefit from rich interdisciplinary interaction. Also see below under transnational.

2) WEBLOG AUDIENCE – My greatest hope is that our audience will include our peers – other scholars and students studying Korea who will find an interest in what we write and will post comments and criticism to our postings, or even better: will be motivated to continue the discussion online by creating their own weblog or at least makie an effort to bring their ideas online in some format so that everyone has access to it.

Too much of the best research by leading scholars in our field continues to be accessible to only small number of us who can consult expensive online databases and large libraries. Time and time again I have heard academics and students complain about the poor quality of content on the internet related to our fields of research. Until we contribute ourselves, there is little to be gained from such dismissals.

Thus ultimately, while I hope blogs like this will attract scholars and students of history and Korea specifically, the Frog in a Well-Japan and Frog in a Well-China blogs have already shown that there is a large audience of non-specialists out there who are interested in reading our postings regularly and post comments and questions, even when such postings are of a detailed and academic nature.

3) MULTILINGUAL – It is our hope to grow to include a number of contributors who are native speakers of Korean or students/scholars who are studying Korean history in Korea proper or other academic communities which are deeply connected with Korean language scholarship. Such contributors will be welcome to post in Korean and thus visitors who can only read English may at some point not be able to enjoy all the postings on this site. The idea is for contributors to use the language they feel most comfortable with when they write or respond to our postings, despite the sacrifice in readability which this will create for our non-Korean reading audience. The original idea behind Frog in a Well, and indeed the reason I chose this Chinese proverb was the frustration I felt at the fact that many of us studying in the US or outside of East Asia are often ignorant of the newest developments in the scholarship by those active in the Korean language academic communities outside of their own narrow topics of interest. Most of us recognize that there is a growing amount of high quality research in the Korean language that we don’t have the time to read or simply don’t know about.

It is the hope of many of us that Frog in a Well blogs will eventually have many contributors who are working in a number of academic communities, scholars based in Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea etc. who know what is going on and who are interested in coming together on a weblog with students/scholars studying the history of this region elsewhere. There needs to be more of this interaction and this blog is one way to do this – but only if students/scholars whose native language is Korean feel comfortable posting and commenting in the language they work best in. Having said that, some contributors (such as is still unfortunately the case for myself) may have no or limited Korean language ability.

4) CROSS-POSTING AND TRANSNATIONAL – Many of us are working on areas that do not comfortably fit into just “Korea”. Postings here may include some which are transnational but might be of strong interest to those who want to read about “Korean history”. We will settle for the broadest and most inclusive definition possible for our postings. While Frog in a Well may eventually have a specific blog dedicated especially to transnational history focused on the Asian/Asia-Pacific region, for now, postings that may be of interest to readers of the Japan or China blogs that are hosted here at Frog in a Well, may be cross-posted at both blogs so that readers who regularly visit just one can find our postings.

Our homepage displays our Frog in a Well logo, based on a painting by Joseph Y. Lo, who has kindly given us permission to use a modified version of it.

In addition, I have prepared two buttons that you are free to use when linking to us:



The Japan History Group Blog

Welcome to the Japan History Group Blog, one of three history group blogs which will kick off the new “Frog in a Well” project. On this blog a group of students and scholars will post entries related to the history of Japan or other topics relevant to its study. The blog will be multilingual with postings in both Japanese and English. There is the possibility that other languages will be added later if we can make it possible for readers to easily configure what languages they wish to view. The frequency of postings will not likely be very high, especially while there are only a few people involved in each blog. Because participants are mostly going to be graduate students and professors, they all have limited free time to post their musings. Over time, as more join the project, postings will hopefully become more frequent.

The primary purpose of all the blogs at and the project as a whole is to promote more communication between those studying and researching in places like the United States with those in other places such as Japan. For this purpose, I will try to built a strong group of participants from a number of different schools and countries. I am hoping that blogs like this, multilingual bulletin boards such as the East Asia History Forums, and small research groups organized around specific interests will help promote more international awareness and cooperation in the field of history. I am hoping that the readers of this blog will eventually be as multinational as its authors will be. Even amongst those who work hard to keep “up to date” on scholarship in several languages and countries, it is often hard to know what new and important research is out there or what questions and issues are commanding the most attention.

The “Frog in a Well” project and its blogs are named after an old Chinese proverb (井底之蛙), variations of which can also be found in the Japanese and Korean languages. The story originally appears in the writings of Zhuangzi, one of the founders of the Daoist religion (In the Burton Watson translation of his Basic Writings the story can be found in Section 17 “Autumn Floods” on pages 107-8). A frog tries to convince a turtle to join him in his wonderful well, of which he is a master. After trying to get in and getting stuck, the turtle withdraws and tells the frog instead of how deep and wide the sea is. The frog is left dumfounded. The proverb which grew out of this Daoist fable has come to represent limited vision and even ignorance—of not being able to see outside one’s own immediate environment.

The Japanese equivalent of this in its full version is 「井の中の蛙大海を知らず」 which has an entry in the「日英故事ことわざ辞典」translated as “The frog in a well is ignorant of the (vast) sea.” The dictionary suggests two equivalents to this proverb in English, one of them being the cryptic, “They think a calf a muckle beast that never saw a cow.” The 4th edition of the 広辞苑 gives the following definition, 「考えや知識が狭くて、もっと広い世界があることを知らない。世間知らずのこと、見識の狭いことにいう。」However, in the case of the blogs here at, this old saying is simply meant to indicate that we are all limited in our perspectives, and can all benefit from sharing them.