“Introducing Re-Envisioning Japan”

On November 5, 2014, I took a road trip to Cleveland with Nora Dimmock (Assistant Dean for IT, Research, and Digital Scholarship, UR River Campus Library), Lisa Wright and Joshua Romphf (both from the UR Digital Humanities Center). Our destination was  Case Western Reserve University, where its Freedman Center for Digital Scholarship at the Kelvin Library was sponsoring the Digital Scholarship Colloquium 2014: Pedagogy and Practices (November 6-7). Our panel, “Re-Envisioning Japan: A Faculty-DH Center Collaboration,” had been accepted for a morning slot on November 6th.

We began with my paper, “Introducing Re-Envisioning Japan,” which gave an overview of the project: Re-Envisioning Japan‘s development as technologically mediated scholarship; the way in which I use it as a teaching resource in my complementary “Tourist Japan” course; the rewards and challenges of building a Digital Humanities project; and plans for Re-Envisioning Japan‘s development (a DH project is inherently ongoing). Nora Dimmock’s presentation, “Re-Envisioning Librarianship,” addressed the changing role of the research university library and its staff. She explained that for librarians, 21st century practice reflects a shift in priorities and a re-orientation toward a more collaborative relationship with faculty and their work. Both library practice and faculty research increasingly involves seeking out and mastering different tools and new skillsets. Joshua Romphf demonstrated the layout and functionality of the new 16mm Timeline, and Lisa Wright detailed the workflow of scanning/photographing, editing, and digitization that results in a digital surrogate for the items in the Re-Envisioning Japan collection. This essay is excerpted from my presentation.

Digital Scholarship Colloquium 2014: Pedagogy and Practices

Freedman Center for Digital Scholarship

Case Western Reserve University , Nov. 6, 2014

“Introducing  Re-Envisioning Japan “

Joanne Bernardi

Re-Envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th Century Visual and Material Culture (REJ) is a digital humanities project built around an open-access, critical archive that uses travel, education and the production and exchange of objects and images as a lens to investigate changing representations of Japan and its place in the world in the first half of the twentieth century. The three key objectives of this project are preservation, access, and historical analysis. By providing access to a wide range of images and objects that have not been a priority for collecting institutions until recently, if at all, REJ gives users the opportunity to work with less conventional, ephemeral primary sources. Currently [as of November 2014], with the exception of one category, everything on the site belongs to my personal collection of items in the broad categories of Japan-related travel, tourism and education. This collection consists of several hundred postcards and over 1150 other objects, including about 80 16mm, 8mm, and Super 8mm film prints. At present, almost two thirds of the collection has been digitized and uploaded to the site.

As the collection grew two focal points emerged: 1) the wave of American tourism that peaked in the 1930s and the concurrent rise of Japan’s profile as a modern nation, and 2) English-language media focus on postwar Japan. I chose 1970 as a rough cut-off date for the collection for a number of reasons, but I selectively include artifacts from earlier and more recent periods that suggest continuities, ways in which Japan’s past recurrently informs its present. The collection and, subsequently, the site’s focus predominantly denote a U.S. (and, more generally, English language) audience, and the American tourist and educational experience of Japan. The objects and images on this site tell us something about the individuals that used or created them, and the cultural, political, and economic systems that produced them.

REJ is divided into 5 generically distinct “exhibits.” “Edification and Information” comprises works on general culture, history, and language; missionary and social work-related materials; objects dating from the U.S. occupation of Japan (1945-1952); U.S. and British World War II era propaganda related to Japan; and Japanese patriotic objects (excluding postcards) from the 1930s to 1945. “Leisure and Entertainment” includes objects (including some postcards) related to advertising, shopping, and Japan’s presence at international expositions, exhibitions, and worlds fairs. Photographs, slides, and stereo views are joined by several genres of literature, including children’s literature, magazines; memoirs and travel literature. Japanesque or Japan-inspired sheet music is also included here because it represents an early instance of Japanese influence on twentieth-century American popular culture. “Moving Images” defined the twentieth century in an unprecedented way. They are represented on the site by small gauge films (16mm, Regular 8mm, and Super 8mm), ranging from the anonymous amateur travel film to widely circulated educational titles. “Postcards” is divided into seventeen subgenres, ranging from actors, children, cities and sites, and “colonial” to occupation, recreation, war, and women. These categories are only examples of the rich diversity that characterizes this mode of communication. The final exhibit is “Tourism and Travel”. The human act of travel generates a wide variety of objects, including brochures, guides, hotel ephemera, maps, and ephemera related to transportation by air, land and sea. This also includes postcards, most notably those of major shipping lines like Nippon Yūsen Kaisha (日本郵船会社) also known as the NYK Line. Travel Guides are divided into “general” (general guides to Japan the country) and “specific” (guides to specific locations).

Some books, brochures, pamphlets, guides and magazines feature a red “Read More” button in the lower right hand corner that allows users to explore select inside content. Red “Item Info” buttons, also in the lower right hand corner of some objects, bring up a page of information that goes beyond the basic metadata that accompanies each object. Only select objects currently have this feature, which can be eliminated once the project moves to Omeka.


The process of building REJ gives me opportunities to work beyond the boundaries of Japanese Studies and Film and Media Studies, but it is also a natural extension of previous research.  When my research objectives began to take shape in 2002, I had just finished a book on silent cinema, a subject defined by loss, particularly for Japan. Lacking the familiarity and sense of immediacy provided by a cinematic image of early 20th century Japan, I was drawn to the life and landscape of that time and place through other material means. I also wanted a more immediate sense of Japan’s profile as a player in the increasingly complex media channels of the 20th century. From the start I was less interested in “superlative collecting” than in exploring a sampling of the variety of objects that I encountered. I began with early postcards, which I was initially drawn to as visual records of place, especially the urban landscapes most likely to have been captured on film. I found that postcards are also reminders of personal relationships between the east and west as well as Japan’s earliest presence overseas at European and American world’s fairs and expositions. They also provide a glimpse of Japan’s rising presence in the international world order as well as views of an imaginary Japan on foreign land, such as a postcard of the Japanese village at Massachusetts Wonderland Amusement Park, advertised elsewhere as a “15 minute tour of the Flowery Kingdom, complete with its own Mt. Fuji.” The collection gradually grew to encompass other media: photographs, stereo views, tourist brochures and guide books, objects of non-Japanese origin that featured representations of Japan, and various magazines, books, and assorted publications, all traces of some individual’s interest in or voyage to Japan.

As motifs emerged I devised working categories in an attempt to construct a meaningful framework for these things. The predominance of material generated by travel- and education-related activities, and the natural kinship between these two activities emerged as the connective tissue for the collection. Educational items tend to be of American or British origin. Tourism ephemera generally originate in Japan. These two over-arching categories complement each other in useful ways. I used the term “Tourist Japan” as a working title for the project early in its development, linking the armchair traveler reading about Japan with the traveler who physically moves through space. “Tourist” and “tourism” are often considered disparaging terms, signifying passive, shallow consumers and consumption, but I agree with others who value them as flexible and inclusive. The rise of 20th century tourism is central to understanding 20th century cultural flow and cultural identity; the tourist perspective is personal, opening up possibilities for a multiplicity of narrative perspectives.

This research project underwent a metamorphosis when I made the switch to technologically mediated scholarship, but it spent a long time cocooning. I came to terms with this project as a study of visual and material culture around 2009, realizing that I had been stymied by the prospect of a scholarly monograph. By this point I was on my third iteration of my “Tourist Japan” course based on this research, and my collection was now a tested and familiar teaching tool. In addition to being part of the Japanese Studies curriculum, “Tourist Japan” is cross-listed with Film and Media Studies, and film screenings are an important part of the course. My background in silent cinema had already given me an appreciation for the materiality of film as an object and the significance of its mutable nature, but for this project I focused on small gauge films that often fall under the category of orphan work. There are critical intersections between small gauge film and tourism and education, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, and again after WWII. In the first half of the 20th century, the growing popularity of amateur travel films reflected the rise of popular tourism, and educational and informational films about Japan’s postwar resurgence and culture—often sponsored by the Japan National Tourist Organization and the Japan External Trade Organization—were plentiful from the 1960s through the early 1980s. During the 2007-2008 academic year I took a sabbatical to complete a program in film preservation and archiving, and started investing in rewinds and splicers. Within a year stacks of films had taken up residence in our dining room, and my husband started referring to our new décor as “early archival.”

Madness met method when I approached Nora Dimmock, then head of the Multimedia Center, with the idea that I could optimize the use of my collection as both a teaching and research resource by putting it online. In addition, I was already thinking of my project as evolving into collaborative research, and a digital platform would make this possible. Her offer to use library resources to digitize the collection was an unforeseen major breakthrough and we began discussing plans for developing this digital humanities project shortly thereafter.


“Tourist Japan” is a problem-based course for both graduate and undergraduate students that meets once a week for a double period. The course has no pre-requisites. Class assignments include weekly readings and film screenings, and nearly every week I introduce an object or group of objects from my collection. The course has three objectives:

  1. to explore Japan’s representation as a foreign destination with a focus on the first half of the twentieth century;
  2.  To learn how to use material culture in historical research by studying images and objects that construct a rich history of how Japan has defined itself and been defined by others;
  3. To build critical awareness of the ways in which visual and material culture influence personal and/or public perceptions of Japan.

Some of the issues we address in class include visual and material culture’s role in creating a global profile for Japan in the context of tourism and promotional education; ways in which illustrations, photography and film reflect changes in urban space, rural culture, industry, geography, and military and political authority; postcard culture; and recurrent iconography, coded images and other patterns that link visual and material culture and evolving concepts of nationalism and cultural identity.

Mid-term and final assignments have always involved the critical analysis of objects or images, but as my collection developed I encouraged students to work with its contents. This past spring REJ was developed enough to require students to use it for assignments. For the midterm, they worked in groups to carry out a research and metadata exercise that entailed the close study of a set of objects and the development of an online exhibit featuring these objects. This was essentially a dry run of their final assignment, individual presentations of their own exhibits of chosen objects complete with requisite metadata, and a 5-7 page essay detailing their exhibit’s premise and an assessment of the experience creating it. Each week a portion of class time was set aside for various projects: designated study time with physical artifacts; digital workshops that included an introduction to and demonstration of REJ and Omeka, the platform they used to create their online exhibits; demonstrations and critiques of other relevant digital humanities projects; an online metadata workshop; and finally a workshop on creating an online exhibit in Omeka.

At the end of the semester, most students chose objects for their individually- authored exhibits that allowed them to construct a narrative reflecting personal interests: some of the more engaging exhibits focused on the representation of women; religion; film history; architecture and landscape; memory; children’s literature; and Japan’s relation to China. Student feedback reflected a much more immediate understanding of Japan’s place in the socio-cultural landscape of the 20th century. They were able to set their own coordinates for mapping out cultural change through their analyses of surviving images and objects, and their perceptions of the people intrinsically linked to them.


In “How Objects Speak” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 August 2014), Peter N. Miller makes the cogent observation that  “the digital, far from killing the material world, seems only to have intensified our attachment to it.” In turning this project into an online archive, digital technology acted as the catalyst unleashing my collection’s potential to make meaning. Digital mediation facilitates conceptual shifting among disciplinary perspectives and has made it possible to experiment with context, organization, and description, what I’ve seen referred to elsewhere as the “recombinatory power of the digital archive.” Flexibility, which includes being able to make immediate adjustments and alterations, is another virtue of working digitally because of this project’s recuperative nature as image and object-driven research. My objective is to derive questions from the images and objects rather than use them to illustrate pre-existing narratives, and my experience confirms that collecting is essentially “an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” Rebuilding contexts of the past by connecting things in relevant and meaningful ways has underscored the project’s potential for collaborative research. From the start plans have included a means to allow contributors who can register and contribute content to the archive, creating a dynamic community of users who can share ideas and related research.

The collaborative nature of building this project (see “Credits” under “Research” on the main menu for a breakdown of roles) is crucial to fine-tuning my objectives and the best ways to provide access to the collection and related research. The reiterative developmental process is time-consuming but rewarding. The most obvious challenges are software and hardware limitations and my own technological limitations. These crop up on a daily basis. Attending to logistic details demands time, but such snags usually reveal intellectual issues vital to the nature of my research. Student assistance helps with problem-solving, and such collaboration has in turn led to both logistical and intellectual breakthroughs. Adding films to the project has raised the most vexing copyright issues—best practices seem to be all over the map.

During the 2015-2016 academic year the site will be migrated to Omeka in order to make it fully interactive, including a means for community engagement. Additional plans for technical steps to complete the dynamic presentation of the collection include, for example: a spatial tool for researchers to create historic travel itineraries; new content based on enhanced media presentation of fragile objects such as travel guides and maps; other tools to extend research capability; and a linked digital publication (e-book) that draws on a systematic examination of the site as a research resource and its community in action, benefitting from the interpretation and contextualization that such interaction makes possible.