Specialty Dictionaries Online: Art History and History

There’s an enormous amount of online J/E and E/J dictionaries, add-ons, and web readers out there, some aimed at the casual learner and others for more advanced students. But let’s face it- when you’re in the Japanese field as a student or researcher, sometimes you find yourself searching for words that the typical dictionary just can’t explain.

Being in a medieval history/art history field, this is a problem I’ve often encountered over the years. Some words are simply specialist vocabulary, and if your Japanese isn’t quite where it should be (or even if it is) or if you don’t have a familiarity already with what you’re working on, hunting down some words is more difficult than others. To showcase a source for art and history study, today I’m introducing two resources: the JAANUS (Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System) online database and the Tokyo University’s Historiographical Institute’s online glossary of historical terms. Navigating these can sometimes be tricky, so we’ll take it step by step.

To start, let’s look at JAANUS. This database is a compilation of art and architecture terminology from a number of publications and scholarly sources, containing approximately 8,000 terms related to traditional Japanese architecture and gardens, painting, sculpture and art historical iconography from the 1st century A.D. to the end of the Edo period (1868). It’s truly unique and useful for all types of interdisciplinary work.

Let’s use JAANUS while indulging my recent study of castles. 🙂 Say, as a castle newbie, I come across the word 虎口(koguchi) in an article. Having first fumbled to figure out the reading if it wasn’t provided, my first instinct is to pop it into my trusty Canon Wordtank in hiragana from the 和英 option, but the closest thing I get is 小口(also read koguchi, but not the characters or the meaning I want). Even trying to pull up こぐち to type it into google, the reading 虎口, being unusual, doesn’t even appear.

Now, if I put this in my 和和 Super Daijirin dictionary, I do manage to pull up 虎口, but if I’m not armed with other castle vocabulary like 城郭or 陣営 to read the definition or if I’m a beginner to the concepts of castles, I might be at a loss (truth be told, the definition is pretty easy to guess from the Japanese, but for example’s sake I’m sticking to the worst case scenario!).

Enter JAANUS! Enter a kanji or a romaji rendering into the left sidebar’s search option and click “GO.” A number of related definitions immediately pop up, and right away you can see one of them is labeled “JAANUS / koguchi 虎口” Convenient! Now we find that it means:

Lit. tiger mouth. A castle entrance. An early modern term likening the castle gateway to the tooth and fang of a tiger, alluding to the difficulty needed to penetrate the armed garrison on guard. Probably originally written 小口, lit. little mouth. Because the entrance and egress were vital to the defense of a castle, the design and placement of the koguchi entailed crucial strategic considerations. Certainly the smaller it was the better it could be defended. Castles, however, were not only used for withdrawal and security *in-no-koguchi 陰の虎口, but had an offensive role as well *you-no-koguchi 陽の虎口. As warfare evolved, the koguchi became larger and included various contingent strategic installations.

We get great historical background and even a little etymology as to why the heck we’re using “tiger” and “mouth” for the technical term for a castle entrance. Also to be found below is a number of reference links to related vocabulary in the database, which is immensely useful for some of the tougher words and getting familiar with what other vocab might pop up in your reading. Similarly, as seen in the above definition, embedded cross-references make jumping to other related articles simple!

Some entries are more complex and detailed (even including photos) than others, so it can be quite hit or miss depending on what you’re looking up. The entire site is a work in progress and can be expected to continue to be updated over time, but since its launch in 2003 it’s become an incredibly valuable resources for researchers and the casually curious who want to discover more about the field.

Moving along, we have another important online resource that’s more than a simple dictionary for historians. Not limited to just definitions, as we will see, Tokyo University’s Historiographical Institute is making good in the historiography area by not just including the meaning of words, but creating a glossary which quotes (and cites) works in which the word appears.

Logging in can be a bit of a hassle, but here’s a simple run down.

  • Go to the site.
  • Scroll down to the link at the bottom where it says “Access the database” and click.
  • On the next page, click “データベース選択画面” (Database selection screen).
  • On the far right in both Japanese and English you’ll find the link to the glossary. Click “応答型翻訳支援システム  (On-line Glossary of Japanese Historical Terms)”.

A pop up will appear, and at the bottom check the box marked “上記の内容に同意します。” and click “同意します”to agree.

And up pops this window:

There are directions below the Japanese search buttons to explain them. You can enter things in kanji, hiragana, OR romanized text. So say I come across the word “kenmon” (権門) in my history textbook, but it’s not translated (which happens quite a bit in your average text!).

Pop it into a search and you get this for the 全文検索 (all text search):

And this for the 語彙検索 (vocabulary search):

Both are useful and get you what you want, though obviously you’ll get slightly different searches since the vocab option is more specific. But as you can see in this entry, you’ll find the word, the kanji, the definition as an author has rendered it, similar or related vocabulary, and even all of the citation information (page number, publication year) and everything! How amazingly useful is that? What’s also great is that you’ll find definitions from foreign language materials too. For example, working on craftspeople research, I’ve had a lot of overlap with German publications which are the only source for some glossary terms (I then copy paste into Google translate and make my best guesstimate… ;))

Both of these sources can be hit or miss, but when you hit, they’re fantastic resources for some of the more obscure or difficult to understand words you’ll stumble across. Also, don’t forget that when looking up vocab you have the romanization for, Google Books can also be really helpful, since many publications about Japan are now online as well.

If you have any specialist dictionaries you personally use, feel free to email us at shinpai.deshou@gmail.com and we’ll feature it in a future post!

Happy searching!

– Paula

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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9 Responses to Specialty Dictionaries Online: Art History and History

  1. Pingback: Specialty Dictionaries Online: Art History and History | JapanLike

  2. toranosuke says:

    Thanks for this, Paula! I use JAANUS quite regularly, and had often wondered if there was something like it out there for other historical terms… This Tôdai site looks pretty useful.

  3. Dom says:

    Great links, thanks.

    • Paura says:

      You’re welcome! 🙂 We hope to write on more specialty dictionaries in the future (time and resources permitting, of course!).



  4. odorunara says:

    I just started using JAANUS at work, and it’s been very helpful. Even if I can understand the Japanese definitions I find online or in goo’s J-J dictionary, having the English on JAANUS is very helpful when I’m translating into English.

    • Paura says:

      Right! I love it. 😀 It’s super helpful for research and whatnot. I feel like JAANUS is the sort of thing I would have tried to start as a project out of sheer frustration with online resources for some of this specialty stuff. 😉

  5. Pingback: Call for Writers: Articles, Resource Review, Fun Links | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

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