Resource: Re-envisioning Japan

How do we connect to objects, and how did people connect to them when they were made? Today’s resource is ReEnvisioning Japan, a collaborative digital humanities project produced through the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries Digital Scholarship Lab. Rooted in their collection of various media related to tourism, travel, and education, the project seeks to document cross-cultural encounters, representations of Japan, and personal experience from roughly the turn of the 19th century to the 1970s. One of their main goals is to shake assumptions that Japan was separate from the “modern” Western world and less cosmopolitan. By looking at common use items and emphasizing their materiality, the project does an incredible job of bringing out the lived experiences in Japan in the early 20th century.

You can explore the collection in a number of ways, first and foremost by looking at the objects by type. The site includes a wide array of items, including sheet music, films, brochures and pamphlets, bibliographic materials, print ephemera, postcards, photos, and more. Each of the objects in the collection is accompanied by a full range of metadata about their size, origin, source, and often include curatorial notes. Some of the most fascinating things, in my opinion, are the wide array of films collected here, including TV commercials, stock footage, documentaries, home movies, and more. The site provides history on the release of 16mm and Super 8mm format videos and connects them to the visual materials they provide in relation to cultural and historical changes, such as how Japan was marketed in postwar culture.

Much of the project has also been driven by developing coursework around the collection, so the site includes not only information on presentations and panels that have come out of this work, but also a syllabus for educators to use entitled “Tourist Japan.” There is also a section called “Object Encounters,” which by its own description is:

visual explorations with minimal narration of an object or cluster of related objects. Informed by material culture studies methodology, they bridge academic inquiry and curatorial practice. They are more exploratory than explanatory, because the levels of meaning that we can derive from an object depend on the questions that we ask.

These object encounters emerged from student projects and go more in-depth into the background and materials of each piece.

Finally, there is a timelines section that chronologically arranges the 16mm and Super 8mm films of the collection, providing a great resource for educators of modern Japanese history. For 16mm footage, videos go as far back as stock footage from 1900, and as far forward as 1987. For Super 8mm, the earliest film is 1929 and the latest 1981.

All in all, ReEnvisioning Japan is an incredible resource with a huge amount to offer, and it’s easy to lose hours looking through it all. Keep this link handy for your own curiosity or the next syllabus being put together on modern Japan and the world!


About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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