The Marega Collection Database: A Review and Introduction

The Digital Orientalist has long published pieces pertaining to the study of the history of Christianity in Japan. In 2021, Michele Eduarda Brasil de Sá introduced our readers to Prof. Toyoshima Masayuki’s dictionary tool “Missionary Linguistics” and all the way back in 2018 I published Beyond “Laures Kirishitan Bunko”: Digital Repositories for Studying 16th and 17th Century Japanese Christianity. There have, of course, been more advances in this field than the existence of these articles in the Digital Orientalist suggests. Readers are undoubtedly already aware of the digitization and transcription of the Amakusa edition (1592-1593) of the Heike monogatari, Isoho monogatari, and Kinkushū by the British Library (BL) and the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (NINJAL), but perhaps many both in and outside the field missed the launch of the Marega Collection Database by the Vatican Library and NINJAL.

The Marega Collection consists of a huge number of records (14,643 items in total) pertaining to Christianity (or more correctly its persecution) and population trends in pre-modern Japan. They are written in Japanese, Italian, English, and German. of These include 11,938 records from Usuki Domain’s Office of Religious Affairs, 413 miscellaneous records, a collection of 2236 documents composed by Mario Marega (1902-1978, the creator of the collection), and a 56 other records. NINJAL has digitized the entire collection and has prepared an accompanying catalogue and metadata. These can be accessed through the Marega Collection Database’s website. In this article, I’ll provide a brief review and guide.

The homepage of the Marega Collection Database.

The main feature of database’s homepage is its “Search” function, but a user may also navigate to the websites of the Vatican Library, NINJAL, or the Marega Project or follow links to gain more information (in Japanese or English) about Mario Marega, the database (the history of its development, its structure, and notes for use), and the Marega Collection itself. The description of the collection (the collection’s catalogue) is particularly useful since it provides the user with important and extensive historical, material, and bibliographical information about the collection at large and the documents contained in each file. It can also be used to help navigate the database as we shall see later.

To navigate the database users will usually click on the “Search” button on the website’s homepage. This will transport you to a simple keyword search bar alongside a list of links to different parts of the Marega Collection. The simple keyword search function works acceptably, but for a narrower search the user can click the “More detailed conditions are specified” link in the top right corner of the screen. This provides the power to search by standard parameters such as title, date, writer, language, or by different levels or ID codes used by the collection, as well as the power to search in some rather novel ways including by recipient (in case the document is one that was addressed to someone), physical characteristics, and form and size. Two parts of these search criteria stood out for me. Firstly, from past experience working with documents similar to those found in the collection (Shūmon aratame chō and letters pertaining to Shūmon bugyō), I realized that searching by sender (writer) or recipient would be extremely useful especially if the user is conducting research on specific figures. Writing a paper several years ago on the Shūmon bugyō (magistrate in charge of religion) of one domain, I had found it very difficult to track down additional sources about the figure using traditional methods, however, if I had had access to a resource like this it may have proven a much less painful process. Secondly, I was really pleased to be able to search by date according to either the Japanese or Gregorian calendar, since many platforms exclude the potentially to search by Japanese dating. In contradistinction to this, many of the search parameters only function if you conduct the search in Japanese. Details such as the physical characteristics of the documents, for example, are only written in Japanese without an English translation. I imagine that anyone using the collection (and particularly those interested in the documents from the Usuki Domain’s Office of Religious Affairs) will have a level of Japanese that will allow them to navigate the collection and its contents, however, I thought that the creators had missed a chance to increase the accessibility of the database here. Not only would an English translation (or in many cases transliteration) of the metadata allow those with little to no Japanese to interact with parts of the collection, but it would also increase accessibility particularly for younger scholars who are just starting to work with these sort of documents and who may therefore be unfamiliar with the terminology. The lack of English translation for some search parameters and data is, however, a minor issue. The interface itself can be navigated in English or Japanese – although sometimes the English phrasing is a little strange.

Perhaps of equal importance to the search function is the ability to navigate the collection via the aforementioned list of links. This list can be sorted by either “Survey Level” i.e. folders or “Function Level” i.e. a hierarchy of document types. A “Survey Level” categorization will be useful for those working with the catalogue, but I personally found the “Function Level” categorization to be more useful. Being able to navigate to documents by genre likely increases workflow and just by looking at the “Function Level” list one can get a good sense of the sort of documents contained in the collection and where they can be accessed.

Once a category has been selected or a search conducted a list of results appears. Clicking on the hyperlink of the document that one wants to access will provide some information about the document according to the advanced search criteria mentioned above. Additionally the user is able to access the scans of the documents.

A list of results.

The scans are of a good quality, and although things do get a little blurry when the user zooms to 200% or more (essential on a laptop for reading the documents, but perhaps not on a larger monitor) this generally has not interfered with my ability to decipher the texts that I’ve looked at. So although it would be nice if the images were higher quality when zooming, I don’t think it is a pressing issue. It was disappointing to notice, however, that some notes attached to the documents by additional pieces of paper were not scanned well and were often illegible. You can see an example of this on the 6th and 8th images of Kirishitan ruizoku no uchi honnin ni narumono narabi ni sono ruizoku no ochō 切死丹類族之内本人に成者并其類族之御帳 (Survey Level ID: s00391; Marega No.: 417). In order to make the affixed notes legible, I had to save the scans, open them in Mac’s Preview,rotate them 180 degrees, and then use the Tools -> Flip Horizontal function. Whilst this isn’t a particularly time consuming process, it would have been nice if these notes had been individually photographed or scanned and made available with the other scans of the documents.

A document page with scans at the top and metadata below.

In addition the above noted issues, it is a shame that there are no transcriptions for the documents (unlike some of NINJAL’s other projects). This could have opened possibilities widescale digital analysis. I suspect that transcribing the documents would have created a huge amount of additional work, but this work has now been passed to individuals using the collection. Other tools that deal with similar documents such as Danjuro provide extensive analytical tools that users can use to compare and analyse data from transcribed documents in the linked database. I fear that the Marega Collection Database missed another potentially revolutionary feature here, at least for the documents pertaining to Usuki Domain’s Office of Religious Affairs.

The Marega Collection Database is a truly immense collection. It is, therefore, difficult to do it complete justice in a cursory review such as this. The database has made thousands of texts accessible to the general public alongside detailed information on these texts in its catalogue. This is its crowning achievement and must be applauded. Whilst there are issues with the database, as there are with any and all digital projects, it is bound to become an indispensable resource for those working on the history of Christianity in Japan and population records.

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