A Critical Introduction to the Repository of Digital Humanities Resources for Early Modern Japanese Literature

The Digital Turn in Early Modern Japanese Studies was held from the 2nd to the 4th of December 2022. The conference was organized by Laura Moretti (University of Cambridge), Hashimoto Yūta (National Museum of Japanese History), and James Harry Morris (Waseda University) with the assistance of Joseph Bills (University of Cambridge). During the conference Bills launched the Repository of Digital Humanities Resources for Early Modern Japanese Literature which was created in conjunction with the conference.

As its title suggests the Repository of Digital Humanities Resources for Early Modern Japanese Literature is a platform where users can find links to different tools that can be used within digital humanities research on early modern Japanese literature. The website is divided into 5 core sections: datasets, databases, corpora, online apps and tools, and mobile apps. In addition to this are a search function; a suggestions page where users can suggest tools to be added to the repository; and a references page which includes a non-exhaustive list of projects, institutions, and resources focusing on digital humanities for Japanese studies beyond (or not exclusively focused on on) early modern Japanese literature and a list of digital resources for studying cursive Japanese. At the time of writing the website lists 11 datasets, 15 databases, 5 corpora, 15 online tools, and 3 mobile apps. The reference list includes 14 projects, institutions, or resources, as well as 10 resources for learning cursive Japanese. Some further links that were introduced by speakers at the conference, but were not included in the repository due to its scope can be accessed here.

The repository is nothing fancy – it is a collection of categorized links pointing to different tools and resources. However, it is important to note that it is not only a list. Each tool or resource featured in the repository includes an introductory description with notes on potential usage and limitations. Although it is true that some projects such as the Digital Humanities Start Kit by the University of Michigan include short descriptions (usually one or two sentences), this repository provides substantive information on each tool. This is extremely useful for getting a feel of each tool and its capabilities, and will likely be of great help to newcomers to the digital humanities and/or early modern Japanese literature. It also allows users to make a quick comparison of different tools and resources. For example, by reading the descriptions I can immediately compare the contents of the ARC Ukiyo-e Face Dataset, the Collection of Facial Expressions KaoKore, and the Ukiyo-e faces dataset, and decide which would be most suited to my research. This is a really useful feature.

As someone who has been engaged in the digital humanities for several years albeit primarily on the level of a user rather than a developer, I was pleasantly surprised to see tools and resources in the repository that I was unfamiliar with – the Edo-focused data portal edomi and the corpus for humorous Edo period stories called the Hanashibon taikei dētabēsu 噺本大系データベース, amongst others. I imagine that many others will also be able to find tools and resources that they are unfamiliar with in the repository. Even on the references page which includes links to other projects and resources, and which is admittedly far from exhaustive, there is a fairly extensive set of resources to be found particularly for studying cursive Japanese.

The repository clearly delineates its focus as early modern Japanese literature, so although those in other fields such as history may find it useful, they will also find that it does not include many resources outside of literary studies. Despite this “narrow” focus, readers may be surprised to read that there are only 15 databases included in the repository although many more existing within the field of early modern Japanese literature. The developer decided to focus on database aggregators which allow users to search through multiple collections and to include separately databases that cannot be accessed via those aggregators in order to ensure that both using the repository and creating it did not become unwieldy. Whilst this means that the list of databases are easy to navigate, it also means that the comparison of individual databases or indeed the complete contents of each database aggregator is not possible. The descriptions of each database and database aggregator certainly give a taste of what one can expect, but my personal opinion was that it was a bit more difficult for the user to see and imagine potentialities at a glimpse on the databases page in comparison to other parts of the repository.

It would be remiss to discuss the limitations of the database page without pointing to the fact that the repository is extremely open and clear about its limitations. The homepage, the databases page, and the references page all outline different limitations that the user can expect to face. This is something that we don’t widely see in digital humanities projects, but it is really helpful for transparency and for shaping user expectations – I would really like to see this implemented more widely. As noted, the repository also features a suggestions page so that it can be expanded and so that potential limitations can be reduced.

Due to its focus on early modern Japanese literature not everyone engaged in Japanese studies will find the Repository of Digital Humanities Resources for Early Modern Japanese Literature useful within their day-to-day research or studies. Nevertheless, it is really worth checking out. If you’re engaged in Japanese studies or the digital humanities, you’re likely to find something new through the website whether that is a tool or resource that you haven’t seen before or whether it is a feature of the website itself. For me the inclusion of substantive descriptions for each link included within the repository and the user-oriented openness about the repository’s limitations are really important features which I hope can become a point of reference for other projects moving forward. 

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