Funding Short-term Research Projects: Conducting an Oral History in Sendai

As some of our Twitter and Facebook followers may know, back in February, my colleague Malina Suity and I ran a Kickstarter campaign to support an oral history project we conducted in Japan. The project was an epic foray into last minute funding ideas to support a great cause, and some of you asked that we write up a little something on the process, so today I’d like to provide some information on the project, Carving Community, and how we went about researching and ultimately applying for funding to get this small, short-term undertaking off its feet. Where can people start looking for funds? Who should they contact? What types of resources are out there? Although our financial sponsors were, in the end, limited because of the timing and type of project we conducted, I learned a lot about alternative directions we could have taken.

Janell showing off a small portion of her top collection in October 2013.

Janell showing off a small portion of her top collection in October 2013.

About the Project

In April of 2013, I received an email to What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies? from a woman named Jane Heald. She explained that her neighbor, Janell Landis (87), had lived and taught in Japan for thirty years, and amassed a collection of spinning tops she was hoping to donate to a museum. Having contacted numerous museums and received no replies, Jane hoped I might have some ideas. I contacted the Associate Curator of Asian Art of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, who was kind enough to help spread word of the collection via online mailing lists.

I learned that Janell worked in Japan for over thirty years, traveling to Sendai in 1953 to work at Miyagi Gakuin University as an English instructor. In 1981, Janell was introduced to Hiroi Michiaki (81), a fourth-generation maker of traditional Edo-goma 江戸独楽(Edo-style spinning tops). Janell became Hiroi’s only foreign and female apprentice at the time, and over the course of nearly ten years, collected over one hundred of Hiroi’s tops. Janell’s story spoke to the engagement of Japanese and American communities, from when she first fell in love with Japan in the post-Occupation period to her time under Hiroi, who encouraged Janell to use this traditional Japanese craft to create tops that also reflected her own culture and background.

A common form of spinning tops.

The most common form of spinning tops.

Concerned that not finding a museum for Hiroi’s work would mean the disappearance of the collection and its unique history, Malina Suity (M.A., University of West Florida), a consulting public historian, and I decided to collaborate on an oral history of Janell’s to life, experiences in Japan, and top collection. We traveled to Janell’s home in Tennessee in October of 2013, taking video, audio, and photographs of Janell and her tops while learning more about her apprenticeship and Hiroi’s craft. Shortly thereafter, Janell expressed her desire that we join her on a trip to Japan to complete a complementary interview with Hiroi and catalog information on each individual top in the collection to facilitate its acceptance to a museum. Knowing this would be the last trip of her life, Janell very much wanted us to join her, and we wanted more than anything to preserve the fantastic history of this collection and make Janell’s dream come true. But, as anyone who has traveled to Japan knows, flying to and staying in Japan is no cheap endeavor, and this time our length of stay (1 week) and location meant we had to purchase video and audio equipment. How were we going to fund this oral history project?

Obstacles to Funding

With our initial interview in October and word of Janell’s trip (set for June) only reaching us in February, we were in a bind financially in several ways.

Deadlines: First and foremost, the deadline for many summer grants is typically in the fall of the previous year, meaning our options for applying were severely limited off the bat, with only 3 months until our potential departure.

Affiliation: While I attend a university, Malina has already graduated and is out in the workforce. Any applications we produced had to be either institution-free or geared towards a single individual. Furthermore, most grants are aimed either specifically at students with university affiliations completing research-related tasks or at people representing public or non-profit organizations.

Length: A lot of grants are geared towards big projects that take several weeks or months to complete, so seeking funding for a project as short as one week was difficult.

Comprehensiveness: Depending on the type of grant we looked for, we found that some grants had specific exemptions for what they covered—some did not want pay for airfare, others were unwilling to pay for audiovisual equipment. Finding a grant to target our specific needs was going to take some research and/or multiple applications.

Finding Grant Resources

So how to fund this project? Where to start? Who to talk to?

Educational Institutions

As a graduate student, my first thought was to seek funding on my institutional end. I thought about some of the key themes and research methods we had to think about for Carving Community (history, Japanese culture, women, oral history, public history, international communities) and thoroughly researched funding options through my university’s History Department, the International Institute for Education, public history program, the Center for Women’s Studies, area centers, and the graduate school at large. In the end, the grants were largely a bust, because if the research I was conducting was not related to my dissertation (as a premodernist working on artisans, it was, but only tangentially!) I was unlikely to acquire funding.


The second step was communicating with public and private organizations that typically fund community- and art-related projects. We already have an excellent list of grants related to Japanese Studies on our funding resources pages (such as those for graduates and professionals or miscellaneous public and educational causes), and I started there before branching out into more general google searches for other sponsors I may not have thought of.

Some of the organizations I contacted included the Japan-US Friendship Commission, the Japan Foundation, the Toyota Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, Japan America Society of Michigan and Southwestern Ontario, the Henry Luce Foundation, the US-Japan Foundation, the Detroit Consulate General of Japan (my local consulate), the Japanese Embassy’s Information and Culture Center, and the Japan-America Society of Washington D.C.

Many of these places have grants related to the arts and community outreach, but I encountered the difficulties in finding an appropriate or available grant for the reasons mentioned above. Still, I carefully worded emails and targeted specific individuals related to grant acquisition. Did their organizations support projects like this? Was it applicable to their grant? Did they have any additional funding reserved for such specialized and time-sensitive projects? If not here, then where else might I look? Networking with people more familiar with grants and sponsorship via email was a key step. Even if an organization was unable to take special interest in and provide support for our project, they were full of great ideas of where else to look, some we had thought of, some we had not. In some cases, they even forwarded our email to others who might help or provided names and contact information for other potentially interested parties.

Local Contacts

As great as shooting emails to strangers over the internet can be, don’t forget to tap your local people resources at home and in person. I spoke with several professors about the project and my concerns for funding it, and ended up walking away with a list of at least ten new organizations I might not have thought to look to and several personal acquaintances of my professors, whom I was told had funded similar small projects and would probably have good insight into where I could turn next. I also spoke with the project and programming coordinators of the Center for Japanese Studies at my institution, who had some great ideas I had not thought of (below).

Hiroi-sensei's woodworking tools.

Hiroi-sensei’s woodworking tools.

Companies/Local Businesses

One idea the coordinators gave me was to look to local businesses in the Detroit area as well as in Japan. I was told that many companies are very interested in sponsorship of these types of small, community-oriented projects and in some cases reserve funds for small grants. Since the oral history was about artisanry in the area of woodworking, I might look to lumber companies, for example. Since a number of Japanese businesses operate in Michigan, I was directed to look also to the Japan Business Society of Detroit, which does, in fact, have small grants sponsored by their numerous participating companies that support the arts, chartable work, cultural events, etc. I would have never thought to look to these resources without tapping the knowledge of others. Although because of time limitations on my end I did not end up contacting them, it would have been the next best thing to look into, and you should try to find out if there are local associations like this in your area.


At the suggestion of one of Malina’s professors who specializes in public history, we also thought about grants related to our research methods, and ended up applying to the Emerging Crises Oral History Research Fund. Although it was a bit of a long shot, I’m sure if we had had the time and known about our project earlier we might have had the chance to find some other great grants related more to our research methods and the international focus of our project. Just another angle to think about, rather than simply Japanese Studies or culture.

Online Crowdfunding

In the end, with our various limitations of time, crowdfunding online was the best way to supplement our costs and somewhat of a last resort. I obtained a summer grant through my university to pay for my portion of costs, Janell’s sister helped us with the other ticket, and we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to purchase much of our equipment that my grant would not cover. Knowing we had little time and not wanting to risk being unsuccessful and acquiring none of the money at all, we kept our goals modest and to a strict budget of the absolute essentials. There are other crowdfunding sites out there, but having not used them, I’m afraid I cannot recommend others personally besides Kickstarter. Leave that to Google searches.

With the Kickstarter campaign, too, networking was essential. I did my best not to directly advertise for personal reasons through the blog, but I did scour Twitter and Facebook for the online presence of various Japanese companies, community-based organizations, and individual bloggers on the arts and culture of Japan who might be interested in spreading the word. As always, networking was essential! Everything is about being proactive, taking the time to do your research, and reaching out to others.

With such a short amount of time and so many roadblocks to our project, it often felt frustrating to try to find the help and financial support we needed. But in the end, everything worked out and we were able to make Janell’s dream come true. We traveled to Sendai and conducted the interview in Akiu in late June, collected a great amount of archival materials for the collection, and thanks to the help of the University of Michigan’s Associate Asian Art Curator and her contacts, Janell’s collection has since found a home at the Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Florida, where in early August it became a part of their collection of Japanese contemporary and folk art. We hope to coordinate with the Morikami Museum for the donation of the collection and our archival work in keeping with the Museum’s mission to entertain, inspire, and educate overseas audiences on the Japanese cultural experiences while preserving the incredible history of the Landis-Hiroi collection.

I hope this story and guide will be helpful to those of you who also have aspirations to conduct research or participate in community building in Japan or elsewhere. There will certainly be many roadblocks and frustrations on your path, but as one person I contacted put it, “[Your success] all depends on how badly you want to do this and how important you feel it is to accomplish it. If you want it badly enough nothing will stop you from getting there.”

(from left to right, back to front) Maeda-san (apprentice), Malina, Paula, Misa-san (apprentice), Janell, Hiroi-sensei, Mrs. Hiroi

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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1 Response to Funding Short-term Research Projects: Conducting an Oral History in Sendai

  1. Pingback: Updates | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

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