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Investigation of medicinal plants, birds and wild animals in Korea in the Yedo era (Soke collection), Edo period, 1721-31. Historiographical Institute
Investigation of medicinal plants, birds and wild animals in Korea in the Yedo era (Soke collection), Edo period, 1721-31. Historiographical Institute

Connecting the past and the present

The Historiographical Institute

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Historiographical Institute
2013/10/31

Each document in the collection of the Historiographical Institute is a connection to the writer, to past readers, to past events. The documents are diverse, from personal diaries and family trees to portraits, maps and public records. They are clues that provide us with solid proof of the existence of the people of the past, says Professor Yoko Matsui of the Special Materials Department. The University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute gathers these clues from around the world and makes them available for research.

Collecting historical documents

Image 1: Letter signed by United States Commodore Perry, Edo period, 1853. Historiographical Institute

Image 1: Letter signed by United States Commodore Perry, Edo period, 1853. Historiographical Institute

The documents in the Historiographical Institute’s collection include both originals and copies. Original documents, both those gifted and bought over its long history, include national treasures such as the Shimazu-ke Monjo, the family archives of the Shimazu clan covering 700 years of their rule as daimy? (feudal lords) of the Satsuma Domain. Copies are created both as a means of preserving original documents and to allow more researchers to access their content, but also because one of the Institute’s guiding principles is “preservation in place” ? not breaking the deep tie between each document and the place it was created and preserved.

For over a century, Institute specialists have travelled the country visiting temples, shrines, and great houses, creating perfect copies of important documents by hand. When creating these copies, the same brush and ink and the same washi (Japanese paper) are used, the same calligraphic style is reproduced, and even patches missing to insect damage are marked out, producing an exact replica of the original. Pictures are copied in the same way, using the exact same techniques and materials of the period, down to even reproducing the artistic feel of the original. Of course, keeping abreast of technological advances, microfilm and digital copies are also created.

Millions of pages, terabytes of data

For researchers working with these historical documents, finding relevant items among the vast collection that has been accumulated over the years is no easy task. Even more of a barrier than sheer quantity, is the question of understanding the content of each document. Calligraphic and cursive styles change with era and content, so much so that it takes a specialist to decode each one. To aid researchers, Institute staff members carefully decipher the text of each document, carry out historical criticism of the document by scrutinizing its character and reliability, reproduce the content as printed type, and collate documents into collections or produce indexes by period or historical event. This work greatly increases the value of the historical documents to researchers. “So far we have published over 1,100 collations of documents. Each year we add more than ten volumes to that total, but even so it will take a huge amount of time to complete even just the historical documents we have now,” says Professor Toru Hoya of the Early Modern Materials Department.

Even though such collections are useful to researchers, there is a limit to the amount of material that can be reproduced in physical form. In the bakumatsu period at end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, documents covering just six months easily fill an entire volume. With limited resources and space, it is difficult to convert all the historical documents in the Institute’s collection into print. Digitization is part of the solution: “We haven’t completed digitization of all our documents yet, but already we have tens of terabytes of data,” says Professor Hoya. In addition, digitization enables storing multiple copies of the Institute’s collection. “In addition to our internal backups, one of Kyoto University’s research centers holds a complete set of data for us, just in case.”

Displaying the original documents that make history

Image 2: Blomhoff family portrait, Edo period, 1817. Historiographical Institute

Image 2: Blomhoff family portrait, Edo period, 1817. Historiographical Institute

In addition to publishing collations and databases, the Historiographical Institute holds a public exhibition every three years to give a taste of its vast collection of original documents. On the weekend of 8?9 November 2013, the Historiographical Institute hosts the 36th exhibition in a series that started in 1902 in the Meiji era, on the theme “Japan and East Asia, Japan and the World.” This is a rare chance to see original documents from past centuries that are normally preserved under strict conditions. “These documents are the source of the history that you read in textbooks and historical novels. We want to give people a chance to see that source up close, and to understand what historians deal with on a daily basis,” says Professor Hoya, chair of the exhibition committee.

Of the 40 documents on display, 30 deal with relations between Japan and the exterior, covering 600 years from the Heian period to the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. One of these is the Blomhoff family portrait (image 2), a document from the Edo era that illuminates one of the earliest interactions between westerners and Japanese. The document consists of a section of text below which is a colorful picture of the family of Jan Cock Blomhoff, head of the Dutch trading mission at Dejima (an artificial island built in the bay of Nagasaki Prefecture and used as a trading post by the Dutch), including Blomhoff’s wife and child, the child’s wet nurse, and an Indonesian servant. “In the summer of 1817, when Blomhoff came to Dejima to take over as head of the trading mission, he brought his wife and child with him. There was no record in the preceding century at least of anything of the kind, so the bakufu (Japanese government) was uncertain how to react,” says Professor Matsui. In the end, the bakufu did not permit Blomhoff’s family to stay, but in the few months they were in Japan the story of their presence spread widely and several pictures of the family were drawn. “This picture was probably drawn by Keiga Kawahara, who later became famous as Sieboldt’s artist,” adds Professor Matsui. Keiga’s art spread the image of the western woman throughout the country.

Image 3: Seong-un Memorandum, Azuchi-Momoyama period, 1597. Historiographical Institute

Image 3: Seong-un Memorandum, Azuchi-Momoyama period, 1597. Historiographical Institute

As well as showing us how westerners and the Japanese interacted in the past, historical documents can also shed light on Japanese diplomatic interactions with neighboring countries. The Seong-un Memorandum (image 3), dated 21 March 1597, gives us a glimpse of a personal meeting and negotiation at the front line between Japan and Korea. “This is a bullet-point memorandum handed by Seong-un, a Korean monk, to Kiyomasa Kato, commander of a Japanese army. At the time, Japan had armies on the Korean peninsula, and the Korean imperial court wanted to know Japanese leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s plans and about the domestic situation in Japan. Kiyomasa was hoping to learn about the situation in Korea through Seong-un,” explains Professor Kei Tsuruta of the Early Modern Materials Department. “We can see that this memorandum must have been written quickly from the corrections and marks altering the order in which the points should be read. Also, reading this memorandum in combination with related materials shows us the bluffing and bargaining that goes on in diplomatic exchanges.” This is the fascinating part of decoding historical materials.

Image 4: Jiang Zhou Ziwen, Muromachi period, 1556. Historiographical Institute

Image 4: Jiang Zhou Ziwen, Muromachi period, 1556. Historiographical Institute

In this period, there were interactions with Ming China as well as the Korean peninsula. About 1550, piracy and smuggling groups called wak? were regularly attacking the coast of Zhejiang, a province at the heart of the Ming Empire’s economy. The Zhejiang bureaucrat Jiang Zhou travelled to Japan to offer the right to free trade with the Ming Empire in exchange for suppressing the wak?. “When Jiang Zhou was staying in Bungo (roughly corresponding to today’s Oita Prefecture) he wrote to the daimy? requesting that they prevent their subjects from causing trouble overseas. This Jiang Zhou Ziwen (image 4) is one of those letters, sent to the Tsushima daimy?,” says Assistant Professor Makiko Suda of the Medieval Materials Department. In response to Jiang Zhou’s proposal, Otomo (the Bungo daimy?) sent an official envoy to Ming. “Unfortunately, the Ming did not recognize Otomo’s mission as official envoys, and they had to flee when the Ming army attacked them.”

Tracing connections from the past

The Historiographical Institute, the home of these many and diverse historical documents, traces its roots back a century before the founding of the University of Tokyo. Hanawa Hokiichi established the Institute for Japanese Studies (Wagaku K?dansho) in 1793 with the support of the Tokugawa bakufu. In 1801, Hanawa proposed to the bakufu a project to compile historical documents, which was then inherited by the Meiji government in 1869 and the Imperial University (later the University of Tokyo) in 1888. However, the Meiji government initially planned to create a “correct” official history of Japan. This attempt at a positivist approach to history had to be abandoned in the face of hostile criticism from Shintoist groups, but proved an important turning point in the future direction of the Historiographical Institute. “Rather than attempting to decide on one correct, official history on the basis of historical facts, one of the Institute’s missions came to be the provision of an environment in which historians could debate an exhaustive collection of objective historical materials,” says Professor Hoya. The Historiographical Institute became independent of the Faculty of Letters in 1951, at which point it was established in its current form as an independent institute within the University.

In addition to the creation of an exhaustive collection of historical materials, researchers at the Historiographical Institute also use these materials to conduct research into premodern Japan, the period from ancient Japan up to approximately the Meiji Restoration. Each has a personal perspective on the many and diverse documents with which they work. “Historical documents are a clue to the past, but the emotional distance we have to each document will change with the period,” says Professor Hoya. We can no longer feel a sense of connection to the Edo era, but we can still feel some connection to modern and contemporary periods. There are also hints in past documents to modern diplomatic relations. “Trying to resolve diplomatic problems from the assumption that our ways of thinking and reasoning are the same as those of others is unlikely to succeed. Historical documents teach us to be aware of our differences,” says Professor Tsuruta. Assistant Professor Suda thinks of the people who preserved these documents over so many centuries, so that we can see them here today. “Documents are vital clues to understand the past, but they also have their own history. Each time I see a historical document, I am always reminded of the great importance of the mere fact that it still exists here before me.”

Reaching across the boundaries of time, across the borders between people and countries, the Historiographical Institute continues to preserve these clues to the past for future generations.

Image 5: Investigation of medicinal plants, birds and wild animals in Korea in the Yedo era (Soke collection), Edo period, 1721-31. Historiographical Institute

Image 5: Investigation of medicinal plants, birds and wild animals in Korea in the Yedo era (Soke collection), Edo period, 1721-31. Historiographical Institute

Cooperation

Assistant Professor Makiko Suda
Medieval Materials Department, Historiographical Institute
Research area: History of medieval foreign relations

Professor Kei Tsuruta
Early Modern Materials Department, Historiographical Institute
Research area: History of early modern foreign relations

Researchers

Professor Yoko Matsui
Special Materials Department, Historiographical Institute
Research area: History of early modern foreign relations

Professor Toru Hoya
Early Modern Materials Department, Meiji Restoration Documents Section/Center for the Study of Visual Sources, Historiographical Institute
Research area: Foreign relations, military and society in the bakumatsu/Meiji Restoration period

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