“I Just Want the Data!”: A Short Guide to GSI Japan for Non-Japanese-Speaking Users

The volume of digitally available Japanese research materials and the databases that hold them are increasing by the year. This means that such materials are available to research students and faculty now more than ever, which has driven research in Japanese Studies forward for those able to read Japanese texts and use these databases. As interdisciplinary university programs grow alongside, and as research continues to cut across disciplinary and regional boundaries, however, so too does the number of researchers who seek to engage materials related to Japan with little to no Japanese linguistic training. This is especially true of digital humanists seeking visual materials.

What happens when the growing community of digital humanists attempt to source visual data from beyond their linguistic comfort zones? Students and researchers who seek to engage non-textual visual data related to Japan very often hit a roadblock when they stumble upon a Japanese database that presents valuable research materials. They know the data is there, but cannot navigate the database that houses it. In most cases, these individuals will turn around and seek out visual data elsewhere, and in some cases, may alter or forego promising aspects of their planned research. If anything, this means that a vast majority of non-Japanese-speaking digital humanists interested in researching Japan on the basis of visual materials misses out.

While the general lack of text in visual materials makes them available to interpretation no matter a researcher’s linguistic background, the databases themselves can present practical challenges for these same researchers. The Geospatial Information Authority (GSI) of Japan, which conducts land surveys and compiles geographical visual data into a digital database, is a good example of this. On the one hand, the site contains thousands of hi-res maps, land surveys, and aerial photographs across several historical periods, many of which are generally absent of linguistic data and ready for research. On the other hand, though, this visual data is kept well beyond the single English-language landing page. To my mind, sites like GSI Japan offers great potential for users of all backgrounds working with visual data, and this is reason enough to encourage non-Japanese-speaking researchers to engage with it; linguistic barriers need not bar access to non-linguistic visual materials, the interpretation and use of which may not require Japanese language at all.

Below is a guide meant for non-Japanese-speaking researchers, students, teachers, and librarians who seek to gather visual data from the GSI database. It provides a walkthrough of a simple search, some translated key terms to help with navigation, and some strategies for making the most of this database with little to no knowledge of the Japanese language.

Opening the database link will present the main search page. After mousing over the center tab, you will be presented with several choices. Some of these may be better suited to your project, but for this guide I will focus on the “Maps, Aerial Photos, and Geographical Service” (地図・空中写真・地理調査サービス) heading, marked in red below.

Clicking this heading will launch a new window with a search and filter pane to the left and a map of Japan on the right:

The left pane is the most important tool in this interface, and below I have provided a brief explanation of each major section:

One of the most important and influential components of this search interface is the format category for filtering results (e.g. Public Survey Map, Terrain/Topographic Map, Thematic Map, etc). I tend to leave this selection on “Standard Search,” and then toggle the results using the middle, five-colored section for result categories, as necessary. Broadly, this will determine the type of image data presented to you and can drastically affect the number of results. Another important component is the date range. Depending on the year, the number and type of results may vary drastically, as well. For example, prior to 1910, aerial photography was not possible in Japan, so delimiting the date range to earlier years will not yield any results in the aerial photography category. The more you tinker with the result formats and dates, the easier it becomes to expand and contract your pool of results.

Now, imagine you are a professor in a digital arts department with a student interested in mapping the urban development of Tokyo during the mid-twentieth century for a semester-end project. Neither of you know Japanese, but the student is interested in supplementing their English-language sources with a richer, more diverse visual data set. Perhaps they stumbled across the GSI database listed in an English-language bibliography. While you both may be inclined to retreat to the comfort of English-language databases or settle for a pixelated map with questionable provenance, GSI could offer a more robust selection better suited to the project goals. Initial search parameters might look similar to the following, though results may vary if adjustments are made to any of the parameters.

I set the date span to 1940-1960. For broad results, I selected both color and black and white images. I set the scale to 1/5000-1/50000, which is about half of the possible scale range; I find this is good for keeping the results within a fairly manageable scale-range, though some projects might demand a greater or lesser scale. I selected all possible formats to yield the highest variety of image results. With these parameters set, zooming closer to Japan on the map will automatically populate it with results depending on what location is centered in your map pane. It may take a few tries, but simply pull the geographical site to the center of the pane to activate the search. As you can see, I have generally centered the Tokyo metro area.

Zooming in will give you more granular control over your search results.

Results from your search filters will be displayed in two ways. They will appear as dots within the desired coverage area displayed on the map and, as below, a green square will appear that denotes the coverage area of the image itself. Depending on the dot and coverage, a small thumbnail will appear in the lower right of the map pane that allows you to preview the image. You can freely mouse over any of these dots to see different areas of coverage, thumbnails, and image file names. The same results will also appear listed in the left pane, which gives the date and format type of the image. These particular search parameters yielded 200 results and, as you can see in the list in the left pane, while the results appear as a mixture of formats, they are largely comprised of aerial photos.

One thing to note is that some of these images must be paid for using the service request form and picked up in-person at the GSI office in Ibaraki Prefecture. Others are free to download. After clicking on a given image (again, either directly from the map or from the list pane to the left), if you see the following message in blue beneath the image metadata it means that immediate download is not possible and that payment and in-person pick up is necessary:

Note the blue link at the bottom, which directs you to a payment and in-person pickup form.

With the assumption that most non-Japanese-speaking researchers will not be in-country, the remainder of this guide focuses on how to download images. With the same search parameters, you can navigate through the list and see what is freely available. In this case, the first item on the list happens to be free to download.

As you can see, it is a black and white aerial photo dated 1947 and taken by a US military plane (note “USA” at the top). At the bottom of the list is the specific area of Tokyo captured in this photo, in this case the Shinjuku ward (新宿区). You or your student might consider copying this location name into a web dictionary for greater context of what appears in the image, and then use Google Maps to confirm the precise location.

If this image might be helpful for the research project, click download, which is marked in red in the image below.

Note that there is no link to a service application, as in the above image. Instead, we find resolution data in addition to the image metadata and a “download” button.

Clicking “download” will open a final message asking you to give some brief information on your intended use of the image, likely for GSI’s internal records of use history and future development of the database and interface. You need not be exhaustive here. As you can see in the following image, I have checked the box for “Educational Research” (教育研究), and have added only a brief sentence or two (in English!) to describe my intended use. There is no need to provide Japanese in the text box. Clicking the single submit button at the bottom of this box will start the download immediately. Conveniently, filling out this form only once during a session will allow you to download several images in a sitting. If you close your browser or start a search with new parameters, you will have to fill out this form again.

Trial and error are the best ways to dial in your search results, and while this process may not be intuitive for non-Japanese-speaking users, this guide should provide a basic framework for recreating searches with various parameters and filter settings. I encourage users not to be discouraged by the language barrier. Instead, know that even the most basic search efforts in GSI will yield a much wider and richer visual data set for your project.

The GSI site covered here appeared in an excellent 2020 post from Digital Orientalist contributor James Loftus, which contains a list of several other digital resources related to maps and physical spaces. I hope this brief guide will inspire the creation of others focused on other visual databases so that digital humanists can access this material no matter their linguistic background.

Banner Image: 1948 aerial photo of Yoyogi Park in Northwest Tokyo with United States Armed Forces housing complex “Washington Heights” pictured to the left of the park. Downloaded from GSI Japan.

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