Category Archives: japanese literature

more room for annotations

Poking around on the Kindai Digital Library, as I am wont to do, I came across yet another book that leaves ample room for reader annotations without providing any of its own (where they would usually appear). This is a page from 華胥国物語 : 履軒中井先生遺稿:

For comparison, here is a page from Murasaki Shikibu nikki (1892) that does have annotations in that spot:

As you can see, too, there’s quite a difference between working with the first edition of a mid-Meiji book (my photo, immediately above), a microfilm version (not pictured), and a scanned and PDFed version of the microfilm version (the first image in this post). Thankful as I am for the Kindai Digital Library, its source material could be a lot better. (Post forthcoming on their new efforts to digitize and what a difference it makes. I’d like to point out that that photo was taken with Instagram on my iPhone, not some kind of high quality camera, and is yet still higher quality and more readable than most of what is on KDL.)

why print?

I recently uploaded a new (and my first) resource to my site, a guide to print reference resources for Japanese humanities held by the University of Michigan. This guide was originally made for a reference class in 2008, so it’s about time that it saw the light of day. It certainly wasn’t doing much good sitting on my hard drive.

You might ask, though, on viewing this: Why would Molly make a resource guide for only print books? Aren’t they a little, well, archaic and outdated? Isn’t it more convenient to check out digital resources from the comfort of my own laptop, perhaps in bed? After all, there are fantastic reference resources – available through institutional subscription – such as the JapanKnowledge database that suit many needs, and bring together information from a wide variety of (originally) print sources and other databases. With something like JapanKnowledge, going to the Asia Library Reference Room and thumbing through dictionaries seems a little slow and pointless.

Let me tell you something. In the process of looking at the various humanities reference resources, for literature in particular, I found a large number of unique sources that aren’t available online. These range from the legendary Morohashi Dai kanwa jiten Chinese character dictionary to synopses and reception histories, guides to folk literature, a multi-lingual proverb dictionary (it has translations and annotations in Japanese, English, French, and German), and a guide to Buddhist terms found in Japanese literature that include the original Sanskrit and phrases from the classic literary works containing the terms.

Among the books that are entirely unique – an equivalent resource doesn’t exist in any other format (or, sometimes, language) – are a biographical dictionary of foreigners in Japan from the 1500s-1924, an annotated bibliography of translations into European languages dating from 1593-1912, an annotated bibliography of Japanese secondary sources on literary history published between 1955-1982, poetry indexes, and a dictionary of popular literature (taishū bungaku).

The process of making this bibliography was the pure joy of a scavenger hunt, and did I ever come up with a list of treasures. Leafing through a book of English-language synopses of untranslated Japanese work from the 19th-20th centuries may not sound exciting, but the fact that it exists as a quick reference resource for those looking to read some Meiji or Taishō literature is pretty amazing. I had a good time in the Reference Room finding these resources, and I’ve put some of them to very good use over the years.

Yes, I use digital resources; in fact, I couldn’t have come up with my dissertation topic without them. (As always, many thanks to the National Diet Library for the existence of the Kindai Digital Library.) But Japan is still a world of print – it’s nigh impossible to get a journal article in electronic form at this point – and, more importantly, print reference sources like these don’t go out of style. A guide to poetic allusions from the 1950s, or a popular literature dictionary from 1967, do not become outdated or irrelevant; we may wish for an update to the latter, but the information it provides is still valuable. Being able to use print reference works opens up a world of information to us by supplying that which has not been converted to database form.

Finally, why this guide? Is a guide coming for electronic resources? The short answer is, save for one-off blog posts, no. There are already so many excellent guides to electronic resources out there on the Web that my own meager contribution wouldn’t make much of a difference. The reason for this guide is that I haven’t found a good annotated bibliography of print reference books for Japanese literature specifically, and humanities more generally, that live at what used to be my own institution. I wanted to both know for myself, and share with others, what treasures were hiding on those rarely-used shelves (and, worse, in the off-site book storage) – what treasures were at my fingertips.

I hope you find it useful, and if you’re at the University of Michigan – or hey, anywhere else, for I can always check the catalog – and you have your own preferred humanities reference works, please send them along or leave the info in the comments. This is an evolving work and I’d like to include everything I possibly can!

Annotation and Murasaki Shikibu nikki

I recently looked up Murasaki Shikibu nikki (The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu) on the Kindai Digital Library (Digital Library from the Meiji Era) as part of my research in revising a dissertation chapter for further publication. I found an 1893 printing and was interested in how the diary was being presented to readers at the time – this was one of the first times it was typeset and published on a mass commercial scale. (The diary itself is from the late 10th and early 11th centuries, written by the author of The Tale of Genji.) Because I’m studying the printing of Higuchi Ichiyō’s diary – a modern woman writer who was compared to Murasaki herself – I’m interested in how other women’s diary literature was being talked about and published as a context.

Anyway, I found no preface, footnotes, afterward, or annotations, so I was out of luck on that front. Except that the lack of annotations itself presented a fascinating problem in the case of this book. Instead of annotations along the top of the page with a line dividing them from the text, as was usual for classical texts being printed at this time, what we have is room for annotations that was intentionally left blank. In other words, this printing specifically made room for readers’ own annotations. Check it out:


Murasaki Shikibu nikki


We often think of digital texts as being uniquely interactive when compared with physical print books, but this 1893 edition shows that that is far from the case. It is a book that specifically invites – no, demands – reader interaction. Reading becomes a two-way activity here, both receiving and contributing, producing and consuming. It is a profoundly personal experience as well, with room for individualized comments and reflections, perhaps, along with jotting down notes to oneself to help understand the text. It is an experience that demands rereading as well – these are notes for further use, written down for future reference and rereading and rethinking. This book asks readers to contribute their own text, and legitimizes those individual interpretations as written upon its pages by providing an official space for them that runs alongside the legitimate text.

This is a remarkably different experience of reading than we might find in, say, a manuscript copy of that same diary from hundreds of years before (as it was originally circulated) or in a printed version with annotations already filled in. (Or even no annotations or room in the margins for them, although that would be extremely rare.) It is an experience that combines readership and authorship, and makes the reader into an editor and author him- or herself in the act of interactive reading.

Yet this book is not entirely unique. It simply presents an extreme case. There was recently an two-day conference on note-taking at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute – entitled, appropriately enough, Take Note – and the focus of this event was on what I would call interactive reading, on readers’ annotations. Readers have been annotating texts – interacting with texts, modifying them and producing their own text in response – since perhaps the written word was invented. Practices may have changed over time and between cultures and languages, but marginalia and annotation have been, and are, alive and well. We might call the typeset, printed text a static thing, unlike mutable digital texts, but in practice, it is easily modified and given new and different meanings through readers’ interactions with pen and pencil.

In fact, I might go so far as to say that digital texts in the form of ebooks are actually less mutable, less interactive, than print books at this point in time. I have a Kindle and while I love reading on it, I still buy any book that I think I might interact with – that I might read slowly and carefully with pen and sticky note sin hand – in a paper version. Annotation may be possible, but it is not comfortable or, for me, practical. It’s a laborious process and can only handle highlighting and plain text, not sketches or diagrams. There is something freeing about the handwritten note or image, something that allows ideas to flow and take shape without restriction. Ebooks do not accommodate this now, although it’s certainly not impossible. It’s implemented badly or not at all.

There is no such restriction on the paper book: it is a good implementation for reading actively and interactively. It is far from static and stable; it is open to readers’ interpretations and analysis. In fact, it is a home for them. As Murasaki Shikibu nikki demonstrates, the page invites our interaction, not simply our passive consumption.

Japan in Days of Yore

I found an interesting book in the library a while ago that I’d like to introduce before I return it. It’s entitled Japan in Days of Yore and is from 1887.

There are several interesting tidbits about this book. First of all is the translator, Walter Dening: he’s a mathematician and missionary who was friends with Lafcardio Hearn. Second, what on earth is the random text that has been translated here, a samurai tale? Who knows.

The book contains a pull-out illustration at the beginning, an “old-fashioned” woodblock print that is in keeping with both the book’s content and its binding. Despite being a hardback book, the paper is bound in Japanese style, with pages printed on only one side and then folded in half, with the edges bound in the spine, instead of being single sheets printed on both sides. This means that each page edge is a fold, creating “double” pages that one can peek into (although there’s nothing printed on the inside).

This isn’t the only book in the Days of Yore series. There are at least five books, three of which are a three-volume life of Miyamoto Musashi. Japan in the days of yore definitely consists of epic samurai tales. The last volume I’ve found was published in 1906, but even then, the traditional Japanese-style paper binding persists even within Western hardback covers. It’s a fascinating combination of technology, American missionaries, ideas about tradition and past, and the persistence of Edo-period (1600-1867) fiction into the 20th century – even in translation.

Given the dates, these stories are some of the first Japanese literature translated into English. Yet they would have been considered light fiction, adventure stories. They’re not considered the great literature of Japan’s past, like The Tale of Genji (which was first translated by Kencho Suematsu in 1900, contemporaneous with Days of Yore). They’re not even generally read anymore: they’ve disappeared into the mass that is samurai tales from the Edo period, hundreds upon hundreds of titles – not to mention the massive amount of parodic fiction and love stories that also exist from this time. Edo literature is often skipped over these days, save for Ihara Saikaku (who only became part of the canon after these translations were published). We read Genji and Kawabata and Murakami Haruki instead. But at the turn of the 20th century, these stories are what Americans in Japan found worthy of translation and publication, and clearly Japanese publishers felt the same way. Days of Yore came out around the same time as Hearn’s translations of Ueda Akinari’s ghost stories, again from the Edo period. Samurai and ghosts: Japan of yore to American missionaries of the late 19th century, and Japanese translations of yore to us now.

pseudonymity and the bibliography

My research is on authorship, and specifically on varied practices of writing and ways that authorship is performed.

For my study – that is, late 19th-century Japan – the practice of using pseudonyms, multiple and various, is extremely common. It’s an issue that I consider quite a bit, and a practice that I personally find simultaneously playful and liberating. It’s the ultimate in creativity: creating not just a work but one’s authorship, and one’s authorial name, every time.

This does raise a practical issue, however, that leads me to think even more about the meaning and implications of using a pseudonym.

How does one create a bibliography of works written under pen names?

The easy version of the problem is this: I have a choice when making my master dissertation bibliography of citing works in a number of ways. I can cite them with that instance’s pen name, then the most commonly known pen or given name in brackets afterward. I can do the reverse. Or I can be troublesome and only cite the pen name. Then again, I could adopt the practice that is the current default – born of now attributing works solely to the most commonly known name rather than to the name originally on the work – that is to not bother with the original pen name, obscuring the original publication context entirely. I can pretend, for example, that Maihime was written by Mori Ogai, and not Mori Rintaro. This flies in the face of convention but is the only way that I can cite the work and remain consistent with the overarching argument that I make in my dissertation: that is, use of and attribution to specific, variable pen names matters, both for understanding context and also understanding the work itself. It goes without saying that this is crucial for understanding authorship itself.

But there is another issue, and it goes hand-in-hand with citing works by writers whose name does not follow Western convention of given name first, last name second. Of having two names at all. The issue comes in the form of citation managers.

I’ve been giving Zotero a go lately and quite enjoying it. But I find myself making constant workarounds because of most of my sources being by Japanese writers, and the writers of my primary sources not only being Japanese but also using pen names. My workaround is to treat the entire name as one single last name, so I can write it in the proper order and not have it wrangled back into “last name”, “first name” – both of those being not quite true here. For citing a Japanese writer, I’d want to retain the last name then given name order; for someone using a pen name, the issue is that no part of the name is a last or given name. It’s what I’d like to call an acquired name.

Mori Ogai is now the most commonly used name of the writer Mori Rintaro (Mori being the last name, Rintaro being his given name). Ogai is a shortened version of his early pen name Ogai Gyoshi. Ogai Gyoshi isn’t a false last plus given name. It’s always in the order Ogai Gyoshi, neither of them is a “real” name, and it is a phrase, not a name. It’s as though he’s using a word that happens to have a space in it.

So when I put some of Mori Rintaro’s writing into Zotero, I put in “Mori Rintaro” as the last name. Sometimes I just put in “Ogai” as the name, when he signs a piece that way. Occasionally it’s “Ogai Mori Rintaro” (this is, in fact, the author of Maihime – I made a shortcut above in my example). And then there are some pieces in which the last name in Zotero is “Ogai Gyoshi.”

I don’t know how to go about this any other way, but it’s less about me having be a little hacky to get it to do what I want, and much more of a constant reminder of our current (Western) assumptions about names, authorship, and naming conventions. It’s a reminder of how different the time and place that I study is, and how much more dynamic and, frankly, fun it was to write in the late 19th century in Japan than it is now, either here as an American or even in Japan. Names are taken a bit more seriously now, I’d argue, and more literally. It’s a little harder to play with one’s name, to make one up entirely for a one-off use, at this point – and I think it’s for the worse.

(Obviously, there are exceptions: musicians come immediately to mind. And it’s not as though writers do not adopt pen names now. But it’s not in the same way. And this, incidentally, is something I love about the early Internet – I’m referring to the nineties in particular. Fun with handles, fun with names, all pseudonymous, and all about fluid, multiple identity.)

new magazine: yū

I came across a new magazine online recently that, as always, makes me wish I were still in Japan so I could grab a copy of myself. It’s called Yū 幽, or spirit in my translation – and by spirit I mean the supernatural.

In case you can’t guess, it’s all about the supernatural and ghostly, and is your typical “literary” magazine in Japan – some fiction (short enough for a single issue, usually), plus essays and other relevant short non-fiction. When in Japan (and now, through my sizeable collection of back issues) I consumed these kinds of magazines regularly. I would say voraciously, but it makes for some somewhat slow reading given that it’s literary fiction not in my native language. Still, I love magazines, and I love this type in particular. (Some of my favorites in Japan are Bungakkai and Yom Yom.)

Best of all, Yū has a fantastic web site: Web Yoo. It has a number of blogs, including by authors that write for the magazine, about related books, and ones that have news about current and upcoming issues. They even have their own supernatural fiction prize, 幽怪談文学賞. (Never quite sure how to translate that one; I like to use “weird” as in “weird tales” of the early 20th century here in the US.)

Please check it out, especially if you’re in Japan and can get ahold of it. At the very least, you’ll be treated to great content and some seriously fantastic images and typography on the web site.

is it ephemeral?

I work largely with sources that you would call “ephemeral” in my research these days. By that, I simply mean “in danger of disappearing easily, or have already done so.” Things prone to disappearing can range from things like theater playbills and concert programs to magazines and newspapers, to gum wrappers and signs and internet forum posts, not to mention non-archived Web sites and things that can be lost easily in a hard drive crash with no backup.* I’m being somewhat narrowminded by considering “non-ephemeral” sources to basically be books, but they are made for persistence through time, and they are often so redundant that they are de facto preserved through this.

In any case, I’ve been thinking as I write my dissertation, especially the current chapter that I’m working on, about what happens to ephemera when one decides to preserve it in a non-ephemeral form. Here, I’ll use the example of reprinting something in a book or putting it on microfilm. Not all magazines and newspapers are thrown out completely, although they do tend to be tossed out en masse every week throughout the world. Newspaper companies keep archives and libraries bind periodicals for preservation and (through) access and redundancy. Things get microfilmed. Sometimes they are reproduced in a traditional bound form at some point, as though they were books to begin with.

I’m working with two authors in particular who published almost solely in magazines that are now extremely hard to get ahold of, about 120 years ago. I’m studying the act of reprinting those stories in book form, here in anthologies of the “complete works” of those authors.** I talk a lot about the crucial role that reprinting in the form of an anthology plays in access and preservation: without reprints, these stories, published in sources that are very easily lost to us, may never have been accessible at all after a few decades of their original publication. The paper of these types of publications is rarely very durable and as time goes on, the surviving owners of the publications tend to throw them out, or the executors of their estates do it for them.

In fact, one magazine in particular is an extreme example of ephemerality. It was a handwritten magazine – really, a zine from the 1880s – that was passed around between members of a literary club, who annotated it as they went along, writing in the margins and then passing it on to the next member, sometimes making their own handwritten copies as well. In this way, the publication and distribution was profoundly decentralized and depended entirely on the efforts of the members of that club. Yet, they were all quite committed to literature and to each other, and so it was relatively successful – if you can call a magazine with only a few hand-written, hand-circulated copies successful.

The problem with the issues of this magazine (before it later was printed and sold commercially) is that they are literally no longer available. Garakuta bunko from the late 1880s is simply inaccessible to us as literary scholars and historians. There are no accessible copies, and possibly no surviving copies at all. This was the case even in the early 20th century, when the extant copies dwindled to a single set held in a private collection; only the tables of contents were published, reprinted in a book on the literary club. Now, that private collection is even inaccessible, and all we have left are those reprinted tables of contents.

Why is this important? It is now impossible for me to investigate, for example, early uses of pseudonyms by some of the authors that I study, and impossible to read their earliest works to evaluate their first efforts in literature. As this group became extremely influential from the late 1880s through the early 1900s, this is a big problem for studying its development over time, its roots, its connections with the literature of the late Edo period (1600-1867), and its early influence on others. In short, this work has been rendered impossible and these questions unanswerable.

Even as early as the 1920s, there were reprints of the publicly distributed, later issues of this magazine. It was a set of only 500 copies and its preface is extremely telling. Edited by former members of the club, the reason for the reprint is stated unequivocally: the number of surviving copies is very few, they are limited to the collections of private individuals, and the early works of club members are nearly impossible to get ahold of. It has been reprinted for posterity and for access at the time of the reprints. There are those who would like to read the works, and the reprints are made and distributed so it becomes possible again to do this.

This is a noble undertaking, and one that is extremely important to our access now. It is reasonable to wonder whether, if not for this early reprint set, even more of Garakuta bunko would be lost to the ether over time. We have more reprints now, in book form, and they are likely to persist through time thanks to this. But what if those reprints had nothing to reprint?

Finally, I come to the sticking point of all of this. It’s prompted by a question from a month or so ago: if ephemeral materials are preserved in such a way, through a digital archive, through photographs, through reprints, does that fundamentally change their nature as ephemera? I don’t have a concrete, definitive answer to this, but I do think there are two issues at the heart of this. One is a practical issue – the major difference between ephemera and other sources when attempting to create a digital archive is that there is even more impetus for careful preservation, because the danger of loss is so high. If a magazine could almost entirely disappear less than 50 years after its initial publication, what does that say about even more volatile materials? We lose a major part of the historical record and in most cases we will be unable to ever retrieve it. This means that there are historical, cultural, and literary questions that we simply cannot ask – or rather, can never answer. It reduces our understanding of the past and even of the present, given that ephemera can disappear in the blink of an eye, historically speaking.

The other issue is thornier. My answer on reprints or digital reproductions is this: it does not change the status of the source as ephemeral. Rather, I think that in some way it both attempts to obscure its ephemeral nature, and yet also makes it even more evident. What is the need for a reprint, after all, if there is no danger of disappearance? If a work is already persisting through redundancy, is there a need for preservation? And there is the issue of the reprint fundamentally altering the context, and thus the meaning, of that ephemeral source. That highlights even more its ephemeral nature, because by recuperating its pre-reprint context, its pre-preservation context, we cannot help but focus on its ephemeral nature, because we are reprinting ephemera, preserving ephemera.

In other words, we can perhaps think of reprints or digitally archived versions as separate objects entirely from the ephemera that they preserve, and this stresses even more the ephemeral nature of what has been preserved. Of course, a work reprinted in book form is less likely to be ephemeral. But what has been reprinted, a serial in a newspaper or in a magazine, is tremendously so, and this very gap in the nature of the medium is emphasized in the process. These are ephemera, preserved. Preservation does not change the fact that these sources are always, will always be, in imminent danger of permanent loss.***


* In fact, I have lost some of these things that I had never considered ephemeral until they were gone. How fragile is an older hard drive full of personal data and artwork? Very. How about things you burn to a CD-ROM for safekeeping? Even worse. A personal web site that you had a few years ago? If the Internet Archive didn’t grab it, it might as well never existed. We talk quite a bit these days about the danger of things never being erased if you put them out in public, on the Internet, but they’re more endangered than we give them credit for.

** Take that with a grain of salt; “complete” is more aspirational than literal, and it has quite a lot to do with “completely” being able to know or possess the author as an author, rather than a complete set of works in themselves. I digress.

*** The fact that Garakuta bunko was reprinted in the 1920s, after all, does not change the fact that the original copies of the magazine are in grave danger of being completely lost to us. A reprint is not the same as the source that it reprints. The reprint, if not an ephemeral source in itself (this short print run of the Garakuta bunko reprint suggests that it can qualify as such), is not ephemera. But what it reprints will never stop being ephemeral.

mishima__bot 三島由紀夫

The Internet never ceases to amaze me. Thing found on Twitter today:

@Mishima__bot 三島由紀夫

Here is its description:


Yup. It’s a “bot” that posts famous quotes from his works. To Twitter. Mishima Yukio lives! I highly recommend following it if only for the uncanny tweets you will find in your フロー. I almost want to set this thing to send me texts when it tweets, but it posts too often.

Iseya Opens to Commemorate Ichiyo’s Death

If you were in the Tokyo area today and lucky enough to hear about or come across this shop in the Hongo 5-chome area (Bunkyo-ku), Iseya 伊勢屋質店 (a 19th-century dime store) was open just for today, to commemorate the anniversary of Higuchi Ichiyo’s 樋口一葉 death. From @frognalway, info and a photo if you follow the link:


Ichiyo is one of the authors I study, and is the woman you’ll find on the current 5000 yen bill in Japan. She died in 1896 of tuberculosis, at the age of 24, and just as she began to climb to the heights of an amazing literary career.

The question always remains, would she have been as famous – or as widely accepted by all of her male fans, friends, and critics, who were the big shots of the Meiji literary world – if her life had been longer, forcing her into a category after all, or into choosing between marrying (and quitting) or writing (and not being the right kind of woman). But that is only a what-if; for her life was far too short, and difficult, and poor.

By the way, this shop is allegedly the setting for her most famous work, Takekurabe たけくらべ.