The Internet and Historical Studies in Japan: A Personal View

Philip C. Brown, December 1998

Japan, it seems, has always been on the cutting edge of electronics and new technology. From cars to audio equipment, the nation has led the world market in production and sales. Surprisingly, though, it has lagged behind the United States and Europe in developing and using the Internet, particularly in academia. Within the past few years, Japanese scholars, helped by their universities and also by colleagues from around the world, have begun translating more of Japan's history into Internet-accessible material.

During several recent visits to Japan I have participated in a number of Internet-related forums and have observed the remarkable expansion of computer and Internet access in Japanese higher education. While there is tremendous progress in this area, Japan still faces a number of constraints and employs practices that give a distinctive cast to current Internet activities.

While I was on research leave in Japan from September 1997 to September 1998, my time was split between Tokyo and Niigata, a sizable but provincial city located in northwestern Honshu (the main island), where I had earlier worked for 10 months in 1994. My base in Tokyo, the Division of Historical Manuscripts at the National Institute of Japanese Literature, was a research institution with responsibility (in the historical field) for cataloging and preserving its own collections of early modern Japanese manuscripts; promoting the technical training of historical preservationists; promoting high-quality training of archivists and archival administrators; developing standards for organizing archives and historical materials; promoting access to archival collections; and locating, surveying, and reporting on collections of archival materials in other countries related to Japanese history. While the research focus of the institution is clear, professors at the Division of Historical Manuscripts focus their attention on diplomatics, archival organization, and preservation of written records rather than on historical analysis.

In contrast, Niigata University, where I spent the spring and summer, is a nationally financed comprehensive university. Its educational staff are engaged in the more typical activities that we might associate with a state university in the United States. The challenges Niigata University faces and its accomplishments in capitalizing on the potential of the Internet are roughly representative of many non-elite institutions in Japan. In 1994 access to the Internet was just opening to faculty outside the fields of science, and graduate students and undergraduate students hadn't a prayer of getting an account. Today, all students have accounts and the library provides several dozen public access computers.

The status of Internet-accessible resources varies widely and their accessibility to users outside of Japan depends in part on having either Japanese character engines (for example, Kanji kit for Mac users or UnionWay for Wintel folks) or a Japanese operating system loaded on one's computer. Nonetheless, the web sites of general universities, major government agencies, and major Japanese newspapers often present some components in English as well as Japanese, making them accessible to those without special software. The sites discussed in this article are primarily in Japanese.

Even when a site offers English sections, some common practices in Japan will strike many as unduly restrictive. Commercial sites, for example, may charge users a membership fee before allowing them full access to the available tools on their web site. This is the case for the site established by Kinokuniya, one of Japan's largest bookstores ( Limited search capabilities are available free, but for full accessibility, one must pay to be listed as a "member." Quite a contrast to! Even nonprofit sites may restrict access to those who have been given specific permission to use them.

Universities, government agencies at all levels, and research institutions are actively establishing web sites, but the content is often considerably more restricted than sites I am accustomed to using in the United States. For example, one large private university in suburban Tokyo has a web site with basic information about the organization of the university and its educational programs. However, it is not possible to locate a directory of the faculty—my immediate need when I logged on.

The nature of funding and the structure of the work environment within Niigata University and other educational and research institutions contribute to these restrictions. There is significant uncertainty about what the Internet and homu peiji (web sites) might be used for, but even when there is agreement on clearly defined objectives, funding equipment, organizing the labor needed to develop and maintain a site, and other such questions place substantial constraints on what institutions are able to do. While "research" funding is allocated to individual faculty on an annual basis, I have seen little money available for project/program development at the several universities with which I have been associated in recent years. Outside funding, largely limited to the Ministry of Education in the absence of either university or private foundation endowments, also has not caught the Internet wave. Until such funding becomes available, most faculty are unable to either hire assistance or to get release time from their teaching responsibilities and public-service research (work on the research and editorial staffs of local histories, for example) that comprise their major obligations. The Ministry of Education is showing more interest in this area, and devoting funds to some activities, including providing free web space for academic societies through the Academic Society Home Village at (Japanese version) and http://wwwsoc.nacsis.acjp/index-e.html (English version).

Demonstration effects—learning what is possible with the Internet by observing the work of other professionals—may also encourage faculty to push for greater Internet support.

Not only lack of financial support but also the very structure of many historical organizations in Japan has prohibited the rapid growth of Internet sites. Academic societies like the Rekishigaku Kenkyu-kai (the Historical Science Society) and Nihonshi Kenkyu-kai (the Japanese Society of Historical Studies) also function in a fashion that is markedly different from societies in North America. These organizations have no permanent staff. Graduate students, young faculty, and researchers volunteer their time. Separate offices, when they exist, are small. These societies are supported entirely by subscriptions, and are unable to act as independent agencies in seeking research and program grants. Nor do they have the staff or internal resources to develop and maintain a comprehensive web site.

Though there are exceptions, individuals bear much of the responsibility for setting up a number of the more interesting sites. Among those running professional organizations, attitudes regarding the prospects of electronic publication are even more conflicted than I have seen on this side of the Pacific.

Academics in Japan are taking steps to address some of the prospects and challenges the Internet poses to professional historical associations both by developing their own sites and by organizing conferences on the subject. I had the privilege to take part in one such offering—a practicum and workshop organized by Masashi Wakamatsu of Kyoto Sangyo University for the Japanese Society of Historical Studies. At the session held on February 21, 1998, at the society's headquarters in downtown Kyoto, three presenters addressed the theme of "Japanese History in the Context of Internationalization and the New Information Age: The Possibilities of the Internet." Wakamatsu, a specialist in early modern Japanese-Chinese contacts; Yoneyuki Sugita, an energetic professor of U.S.-Japanese diplomatic history at Osaka University of Foreign Studies; and I made up the panel. We addressed a wide array of issues, from a very basic orientation to the essential equipment and software tools needed to access data through the Internet to online introductions to helpful web sites and finally to problems of Internet publication. The mix of topics reflected the various levels of experience present in the small but very attentive audience.

My presentation, "The World Wide Web and Internet: Technological Links to the World," provided a basic introduction to the equipment and software needed to use the Internet, stressing the availability of free software that could be used even on older equipment commonly found in individuals' offices (from GOPHER and FTP software to net browsers). I also introduced the Japanese-English bilingual newsgroup H-Japan, part of H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine; several examples of Japanese sites that could serve as useful research tools in early modern Japanese history; and basic search engines such as the Japanese versions of Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo!. I concluded by presenting examples of American web sites that combined academic, public service, and entertainment functions well: "The Great Chicago Fire," "Valley of the Shadow," and "The Labyrinth: Resources for Medieval Studies."

Sugita, in "The Internet as a Research Tool," stressed the utility of the Internet for conducting bibliographic searches in both Japanese and Western languages, the accessibility of library catalogs, the availability of online journals (complete and summary only; the two Japan-based sites mentioned were Japan Echo [http://www.] and Journal of Pacific Asia [], both English-language sites), and the potential for active scholarly discussions.

Sugita's personal home page (, in Japanese, includes organized links to a wide variety of contemporary Japanese and English language information sources in a broad array of fields with a strong emphasis on recent history, current events and news, and Japan's foreign relations.

Wakamatsu's presentation, "The Japanese Society of Historical Stud- ies, the New Information Age and Internationalization," focused primarily on the opportunities and challenges posed by new information technologies for professional organizations like the society. He grouped his remarks under three headings: research, general association affairs, and editing. Regarding research, he stressed the potential for using a society web site to publish research reports, such as the summary of the society's Early Modern Section activities at the 1996 annual meeting, which he posted on his personal home page ( He also offered other academic uses for the Internet such as posting preliminary papers prior to formal publication to solicit comments for revision and reports on the content of newly mined manuscript collections and materials. On the theme of general association affairs, he suggested the advisability of publicizing activities of interest to historians, citing efforts to prevent the proposed dismemberment through sale of the highly valuable So family documents (medieval and early modern Tsushima domain, a longtime and key link between Japan and Korea even at a time when international contacts were severely restricted), and Internet tracking of the controversy over Japanese history textbook revisions. On the subject of editing, Wakamatsu acknowledged the problems of copyright and the impact on the society's finances if research manuscripts were freely available on a society web site, but proposed that the society post the tables of contents of its journal in searchable form, as well as posting society news. He also suggested that the society make use of an electronic members' mailing list to facilitate virtually instantaneous communication among members. He concluded by introducing the web site of Masashi Ugai (, which lists several related sites, as an example of a collection of links useful to historians in Japan.

In the discussion that followed, questions and concerns focused on two sets of issues. First, many wondered whether any society web site would represent "real" Japanese history. This provided the panel with an opportunity to stress that editing a web site and its related functions posed precisely the same challenges as editing a journal or book. Just as there could be no guarantee that all would agree with the vision of Japanese history presented in traditional formats, the new media could not finally resolve what "real" Japanese history was. The society could, however, at least assure viewers that whatever appeared on its electronic media stood up to solid academic standards.

More extended and considerably heated discussion focused on the question of what the Internet and World Wide Web would do to the traditional functions of the society—the publication of a monthly journal and regional and annual meetings. This discussion echoed some of the concerns that have animated the pages of Perspectives in recent months, although I sensed a more deep-seated fear than I have found in such discussions in the United States. It may well be that much of the concern is a product of unfamiliarity with the Internet and a lack of exposure to the models that exist both within and outside of Japan.1

Despite much less financial support than we in academia in the United States are used to, widespread academic use and development of the Internet are coming to Japan. There are now a number of very promising examples of Internet use. Professor Naofumi Hara at Niigata University, along with his colleagues and students, has created and maintains a site dedicated to pedagogy (http://member. On the web site of the Niigata University library (, in addition to the links to library holding that one would expect on such a site, the organizers have added links to descriptions of early modern manuscript collections held in the library. What I find particularly interesting on this site is the effort to place visual images of at least some of these documents on the site—an unusual development because these handwritten manuscripts can only be read by specially-trained people. The library of Okayama University, which houses the manuscript collection of the Ikeda family, rulers of Okayama domain (, has posted a search engine for locating references to domain bureaucrats and an index to early modern maps in the collection that are available online. The Historiographical Institute at Tokyo University also permits searching of its online index of documents (

The National Institute of Japanese Literature ( has prepared a searchable index of local archival resources that will be opened to the public shortly. The site will gradually develop to include more data on these collections. Ugai Masashi's private site (noted above) includes a wide array of links to professional associations and activities, historical museums, university and research sites—he moves well beyond the field of Japanese history.

WEBCAT ( is an extremely useful and flexibly searchable database for searching Japanese books and locating libraries in Japan (and sometimes elsewhere) where items may be found.

Tremendous strides have been taken over the past few years. In addition to the widespread use of web sites by local history museums, libraries, and archives, the development of sites like these promise a wide array of electronic support for research in Japanese history. As individuals become more educated and proficient in developing web sites, as technology advances to make multilanguage sites more accessible, and as universities realize the value of this resource, scholars worldwide will be able to use the rich resources of Japanese history.

—Philip C. Brown teaches at Ohio State University.


1. I think it is fair to say that the proportion of historians using personal computers in Japan is still far below rates in the United States; of those users, very few make regular use of the Internet; and those who do use the Internet use it primarily for e-mail rather than participation in discussion groups, exploiting web pages, and the like. While there have been dramatic improvements in the availability of computers for faculty, hard-wired connections to university mainframes and the web, and availability of public terminals for students at a number of the universities with which I am familiar, progress has been relatively slow compared to the early phases of expansion on U.S. campuses.