Graduate Summer School in Japanese Early-modern Palaeography at Cambridge

The main front lawn of Emmanuel College.

I have just completed the two-week intensive “Graduate Summer School in Japanese Early-modern Palaeography” program held at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, and organized by Dr. Laura Moretti. This is the second year this program has been run, and they are planning to continue it for at least the next several years. I found the program extremely productive and enjoyable, and would certainly highly recommend it for anyone – particularly graduate students – looking to improve their abilities in hentaigana / kuzushiji and kanbun: i.e. learning how to read cursive (scribbly) manuscript & woodblock-printed texts, including texts in forms of classical Chinese (kanbun), as well as texts more thoroughly Japanese in form (wabun). For us Edo period specialists, as well as those working on earlier periods, such skills are absolutely essential.

The program is about as affordable as one could imagine, at only £100 for tuition/fees; the only real expense is the airfare, accommodations, and so forth.

The program is chiefly aimed at those with no experience in hentaigana / kuzushiji or kanbun, and indeed the majority of the students were brand-new to these skills at the beginning, though some familiarity with classical Japanese, as well as an advanced level of ability in modern Japanese, is crucial for success in the course. As our Shinpai Deshou site is entitled “What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies,” I should also mention that the program is plenty accessible for recent B.A. grads, who have not yet entered grad school, provided that your Japanese is at a high level, and you are eager and willing to work to put in the appropriate attention and effort. We had several recent B.A. graduates in our group who did quite well, and did not, I think, seem set apart at all. Hopefully they didn’t feel excluded or differentiated in any way.

Of course, at the other end, there are those of us with a bit more experience and expertise at these things. And Dr. Moretti’s program was quite accommodating to this broader range of people as well; since the themes and reading materials change every year, there is room for people to return, and to continue practicing and brushing up their skills. This year’s theme was the Yoshiwara: all of the texts we practiced reading in kuzushiji, kanbun, and sôrôbun were Edo period texts about the Yoshiwara. Next year’s theme will be Chinese literature published in Edo period Japan. I was, personally, surprised at how few Brits were in attendance, but, I imagine that if I were more locally based, and especially if I happened to be in Cambridge (and therefore didn’t have to pay for flights, accommodations, etc.), returning here every summer for two weeks for just £100 would be an extremely affordable, enjoyable, and effective way to keep in practice and keep engaged with this particular corner of the Japanese Studies world (that is, book history, etc.). I am truly thankful that such a program exists, since few of us, whether in the US, Europe, or elsewhere, have within our own universities, such opportunities to learn and practice these essential research skills.

I had been worried about how much we could do in two weeks, and how this course could possibly advance my skills all that much. But, I really think it has. Of course, it remains to be seen how well I am able to maintain these skills, i.e. to keep them in practice, and to apply them to the documents relevant to my own research. But, still, I do feel I have advanced considerably in the last two weeks. And, further, beyond that, not only have I gotten to visit Cambridge (and London, along the way), with its incredible history, beautiful buildings, and exciting punting adventures, but I would say both personally/socially and academically/professionally, I have truly enjoyed and benefited from meeting and working with so many wonderful graduate students from all over the US, England, Europe, and beyond, as well as developing connections with Moretti-sensei and Yamabe-sensei. I eagerly look forward to seeing many of these people again at conferences and so on in the future.

A page from Karukuchi fuku okashi 軽口ふくはなし (1740) which serves as the first text for Dr. Moretti’s online video introduction to hentaigana & kuzushiji.

Program Structure
Much of this information is, of course, visible on the program’s own website. But, I figure that as I describe it, I’ll inevitably insert my own impressions and so forth.

The core of the program is ten days of lessons on kuzushiji and kanbun, with one taught for three hours in the morning, and the other three hours in the afternoon, with half-hour coffee breaks and a one-hour lunch break. These ten days were preceded by an optional day introducing hentaigana and kuzushiji for those with no prior experience (which, this year, comprised all but four or five of us).

Kanbun with Prof. Yamabe mainly entailed listening to lectures (in Japanese), and following along. We began right from the get-go with looking at actual texts, and learning the various structures and techniques of kanbun kundoku (reading classical Chinese in[to] Japanese) as we moved along. This was an interesting contrast from programs I’ve done in the past (also of great worth and merit, and which I recommend highly) which began with textbook exercises, introducing one element at a time, and focusing on individual short phrases explicitly selected to highlight that one element. I can’t speak for those who had had no prior kanbun experience at all, but I think Yamabe-sensei’s approach worked quite well – if for nothing else, by jumping in headfirst it helped us realize that kanbun is really quite doable, even with only limited prior experience. Over the course of the two weeks, we read from a number of different texts, all clearly legibly written or printed in the Edo period with kaeriten already originally included – these are marks along the sides of the characters which indicate how to translate the kanbun (Chinese) into something understandable as Japanese. For example, a re-ten (re mark) in 不知, telling you to flip the order of the characters. Instead of reading the 不 first, and ending up with fuchi 不知, you read the verb (shiru, 知) first, and the negation after it, yielding shira+zu (知らず). At times, Yamabe-sensei gave us a few minutes to read ahead on our own, and then he would explain the next line or two of the text, slowly and carefully, step by step, explaining both the word order and correct reading, and then also the meaning in modern Japanese. Towards the end of the program, the last few days, he began actually calling on us to individually read out sections, really trying it ourselves.

Over the course of the two weeks, Yamabe-sensei went over just about the full range of basic elements of how to read kanbun, in the process of walking us through actual texts from the period. We did not, however, “graduate” to learning at all how to read hakubunkanbun texts written without the kaeriten already included. This is an important next step for me, and for anyone I think who wants/needs to read kanbun texts; not everything you come across is going to have those helpful marks already included. But, I suppose you can only do so much in two weeks.

Afternoons with Dr. Moretti, working on kuzushiji, were somewhat more interactive from the very beginning. I did not myself attend the beginner’s day, so I’m not sure how it was handled, but after that, we spent most afternoons during the two weeks working alone, in pairs, or in small groups, 10-20 minutes at a time, to work through a section of a text on our own, then going over it together as a class, with Dr. Moretti calling on individual students to read small sections, ask questions, and so forth. Dr. Moretti is amazingly high-energy, and her lessons were very engaging and effective.

In addition to building our own mental skills, such as memorizing kuzushita forms of characters, and learning how to view them, how to think about them, this was integrated into also learning how to use a variety of dictionaries, something which in the end is by no means secondary, but is an extremely valuable set of skills. I had my own kuzushiji dictionary from a previous program, a thin book which just lists out all the kana, and a variety of different ways these will appear in manuscript and woodblock-printed documents. Dr. Moretti also introduced us to the use of Kodama Kôta’s hefty Kuzushiji yôrei jiten, which does the same for kanji, and Kodama’s Kuzushiji kaidoku jiten, which allows you to look up a calligraphic character by the actual direction and shape of calligraphic strokes, even when you don’t know the radical. The former is eminently valuable in general, allowing you to look up characters either by reading or by radical, much like in a regular dictionary, providing a number of alternate ways these can appear in old documents, and providing as well examples of the most common character compounds; this often saves you from having to look up both characters in a compound – you can look up just the one, and then run through the most common possibilities for what the other might be. It also includes all the hentaigana of the thin book. The latter dictionary, meanwhile, is basically a godsend, for when you don’t even know where to start in trying to interpret which kanji a given character might be; it also shows similar-looking characters, allowing you to attempt to differentiate between them.

A page from Yûshi Hôgen, a kanbun text we practiced reading with Yamabe-sensei.

Extra Bits

While sessions with Profs. Yamabe and Moretti very much formed the core of the workshop, the program was rounded out by several other events.

We spent two days (morning and afternoon sessions) getting a crash course in sôrôbun from Prof. Amy Stanley, one of the leading scholars in Edo period Japanese social history, and in reading komonjo (historical texts), active today. Sôrôbun is typically described as an epistolary style, meaning it was used to write letters, but actually it was used far more extensively than that in the Edo period. I am not sure how much you will find sôrôbun in woodblock-printed popular publications, which are a massive field unto themselves, but when it comes to official and unofficial records and communications, sôrôbun is everywhere, and so if you’re doing work on certain types of topics, it’s crucial. Sôrôbun is sometimes described as hentai kanbun (lit. “strange form Chinese writing”) – it incorporates kana extensively, often spelling out the okurigana conjugations of words, and so forth, though also often not doing so, and is in this sense perhaps more directly readable as Japanese than straight-up kanbun; thankfully, it also eschews the nari keri tari forms which so harassed me in more fully pre-modern-oriented classical Japanese readings. However, sôrôbun is dominated and defined by the inclusion of a number of constructions not usually seen in other kanbun or wabun forms, which take some getting used to. These for the most part center on the copula character sôrô (候), which functions akin to です in modern Japanese; phrases like 差上申候 (さしあげもうしそうろう), 無御座候 (ござなくそうろう), and 被為仰付、難有奉存候 (おおせさせられにつき、ありがたきぞんじたてまつりそうろう) are quite common, incorporating some of the “reading backwards” behavior of kanbun.

Another day, we had a calligraphy session in the morning with London-based calligraphy master Yukiko Shôkaku Ayres. Not your typical “cultural experience” sort of calligraphy session, like so many of us have had either in undergrad, while on study abroad, or at a local Japan Society, the focus here was on learning about and thinking about how calligraphers (or, just simply, writers, really) approached the abbreviation of characters. While they can look extremely haphazard at first glance, there really is a method to the madness, and in fact once you begin to get some practice at deciphering them, you find that all of these texts are quite a bit more standard in their form than, for example, comparing English-language handwriting amongst you and I. For some characters and radicals, I found this extremely useful; seeing how a certain kind of loop is often likely an abbreviation of a box (口), and how elements of the kuzushiji that resemble め are often abbreviations of 女, for example, made it both a lot easier to recognize many characters, and to look up others in the dictionary. For many other characters, however, while they are abbreviated in a relatively standard way, they are in many cases so abbreviated that the logic, so to speak, of where they come from and why/how they were abbreviated in that manner is lost. Still, this was a valuable and interesting session.

Finally, following the calligraphy session, we had a keynote lecture by Dr. Ellis Tinios, expert on Japanese woodblock-printed books, who spoke to us about bibliographic concerns. When you’re examining an original Edo period woodblock-printed book, how do you know its publication date? How do you know if it’s a first edition, or if it’s not, how it might differ from other versions, either because of damage to blocks or book, or because of intentional changes by publishers from one edition to the next? It was extremely common in the Edo period to reprint books, with or without very significant changes, sometimes decades later, with the same title and indicated date – the dates in the back of Edo period books indicate when the blocks were first cut, not when that copy or edition of the book was actually printed. It was also very common to publish the same book, or nearly the same book, under new and different titles, and also to have multiple different titles within the same book, between the front cover, title page, and elsewhere. Dr. Tinios impressed upon us the importance of considering the book as an object, with its own history of publication, damage, alteration, etc., and not just as a text – when you examine a single book, you cannot take that copy as a definitive copy, but must consider as many alternate versions of the book as possible, to ascertain its publication history. Some poetry books were republished with the poems themselves cut out, keeping just the images, and retitled as painting manuals – the exact same pictures, in the same order, but a very different book in the end.

Between the classroom, coffee breaks, breakfasts, and so forth, there were also a number of occasions to speak with Profs. Stanley and Tinios more personally, about grad school, academia, research and so forth. A very valuable opportunity in and of itself. Dr. Moretti also shared with us a number of items from her own personal collection of Edo period books – it’s always great to get to see and handle such objects directly. I was particularly intrigued by a collection of kawaraban, ko-banzuke and the like compiled, like a scrapbook, by someone in the 1850s, preserving for posterity a great many ephemeral items that would have otherwise been lost. I wonder how many albums of this sort survive.

My accommodations at Emma. You can see more of my photos of the college, including some of the accommodations, here.

Accommodations and So Forth
We were accommodated in-college at what I presume are regular dorm rooms for upperclassmen, for around £40/night. The college dates back to Elizabethan times, and from the outside the buildings are gorgeous. The rooms themselves are far more basic and standard than I had expected, as you can see above, but maybe that’s just my unrealistic romantic misconceptions of Cambridge having read so much Harry Potter and the like. At the end of the day, my room was more or less all it needed to be: large and comfy, with bed, desk, dresser, closet, mini-fridge, sink & mirror, bookshelves, and two extra sitting chairs, and included many of the basic amenities (incl. bath towel, linens, free wifi, good windows for letting the fresh air in; you have to get your own toothpaste, shampoo, etc.). Some of the rooms were actually small suites, including a bedroom, small living room sort of area with mini-kitchen, and private bathroom. The rest of us shared a bathroom (toilets + showers) on the hall, but as near as I could tell, there was more or less no one else around but us, and one or two groups of undergrad summer study abroad students from the States, housed in another dorm. It’s been quite pleasantly quiet.

Breakfasts were included for all but the last four or so days of the program. We were on our own for lunch and dinner. The college cafeteria is more or less like most, I suppose; nothing too fancy, more institutional than anything else, with steam tables for the hot food, and like that. But, the breakfast options were pretty good, ranging from eggs and sausages and beans and toast, to yogurt and cold & hot cereal, and no one seemed to mind if we heaped up a rather large breakfast and even took some things to keep for later. While this area where you picked up the food was quite institutional, though, the actual dining hall where we ate was quite nice.

The dining hall.

Beyond the Graduate Summer School

The Graduate Summer School is not the only part of Dr. Moretti’s grander schemes. Along with Drs. Yamabe and Tinios, she has co-founded a international study network called J-PATS (Japanese Palaeography and Textual Scholarship), the activities of which look like they will only be continuing to expand in coming years. You can read more about the Graduate Summer School at and at These sites also include online courses in kuzushiji and kanbun, and lists of good resources (e.g. dictionaries, other online courses). The group also organized a workshop this past March at Cambridge which included lectures, visits to local museums, and hands-on experience handling Edo period books and learning about how they were organized, produced, and so forth. They are planning a similar workshop for next March, as well, which likewise looks wonderful. I am sad that I won’t be able to attend. They have also in recent years run hentaigana/kuzushiji workshops at UPenn; though there wasn’t one this year, I imagine they might be taking place again in future, and should be much more affordable and accessible for those of us in the States.

The group has also recently begun a blog,, posting about related issues. The only two posts up at the moment are one on developments in OCR technology for kuzushiji, and a new Japanese language journal explicitly dedicated to shomotsugaku (the study of books & manuscripts, i.e. in particular as material objects and not just for their textual content).

The subject does seem to be gaining some traction, niche though it may remain. A number of major museums are in the process of digitizing their collections of Edo period books and making them more fully publicly available, a project in which the Art Research Center (ARC) at Ritsumeikan University is extremely active. Universities such as my own (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) have also in recent years held several symposia & workshops on the History of the Book & Wahon Literacies.

If you have any questions about the program, please feel free to contact me, or leave comments here on the blog. For more technical or formal questions about the program, contact Dr. Laura Moretti at Cambridge.

Photos of Emmanuel presented here are my own; images of texts are from the program’s website.

About Travis

I am a scholar of Japanese & Okinawan history with a particular interest in the history of arts and culture, and inter-Asia interactions, in the early modern period. I have been fortunate to enjoy the opportunity to live in Okinawa for six months in 2016-17, and in mainland Japan on multiple occasions, including from Sept 2019 to now.
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