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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Bringing Life to Historical Postcards: The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library Japan Collection

by Paula Curtis on 2022-07-20T10:40:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Tokiko Y. Bazzell, Former Japan Studies Librarian, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library

Cinema Street at Asakusa, c. 1933-1944, Kumaichi Hiraoka Postcard Collection

Postcards have been a popular form of communication for travelers all over the world, and Japan is no exception. Beginning around 1900, the Japan Postal Service began issuing ehagaki 絵はがき, or postcards with images and illustrations, to the public. Postcards quickly became a popular fad, and those produced at the beginning of the twentieth century have become an invaluable source of historical knowledge, particularly in light of moments of conflict and destruction, such as the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM) Japan Collection was fortunate to receive two significant historical postcard collections in 2017: the Bell Historical Postcard Collection and the Kumaichi Hiraoka Postcard Collection. The donors of these collections, a US mainland visitor who traveled throughout Asia and the Pacific and a local Hawaiʻi Japanese immigrant respectively, embody the unique geographical and historical ties between Hawaiʻi, Asia, and Japan. Specialists of the UHM Library have worked tirelessly over the last two years to digitize these materials and make them available for use by scholars and students. These efforts involve a research process all its own that requires we think critically about issues like preservation, metadata, and what historical information can be gleaned from the cards themselves.

About the Postcard Collections

The Bell Historical Postcard Collection was created from postcard scrapbooks that belonged to Mrs. Carole Bell’s father. Her father traveled to Hawaiʻi, the Pacific and Asia in the 1920s, including Yokohama, Nagasaki, Kobe, Formosa and Shanghai. The collection comprises 344 postcards, bromides, and prints created prior to World War II. Topics vary widely, from idyllic landscapes and portraits of royals to candid shots of music performances or daily life. Though some postcards are black and white, others are color lithographs that create a slightly surreal sense of the past. The collection was originally donated to the Japanese Culture Center of Hawaiʻi (JCCH) in 1993 but was subsequently donated by JCCH to UHM in 2017.

The Kumaichi Hiraoka Postcard Collection was donated directly to the UHM Asia Collection Department by his granddaughter, Nancy R. Hiraoka, also in 2017. Kumaichi Hiraoka (1891-1981), originally from Yamaguchi Prefecture, was among some of the first immigrant groups to arrive in Hawaiʻi at the turn of the century. The large Japanese immigrant community has shaped many facets of life there; like many who relocated, Hiraoka left Japan at 16 years of age to work for a sugar plantation. He left the plantation after two years and became a taxi driver, later working as a private chauffeur for several of Hawaiʻi’s distinguished families. He eventually came to work for the Honolulu Academy of Art (today the Honolulu Museum of Art), from which he retired after a 30-year career. In 1934 he made his first trip home to Japan. He collected postcards of places of interest around Yamaguchi, Kansai, and Tokyo, as well as colonial Manchuria, notably the battle sites of the Russo-Japanese War. He also saved the postcards mailed to him from his friends and relatives in Japan, resulting in a collection of over 1,000 postcards now in the possession of UHM Library.

Making UHM’s Postcard Collections Digitally Accessible

Making special collections like our postcards available and accessible to people around the world is one of the most important tasks for librarians and information specialists. The process requires careful consideration not only of the physical conditions of the materials we receive but also what information they provide and how we can present that information to viewers. In addition to myself, the postcard digital project group consisted of student members Madoka Nagado and Nanae Sajiki, UHM Technology Specialist Daniel Ishimitsu, and the Metadata Cataloger Sadie Rosen. Their combined efforts and expertise were invaluable.

For the Bell Collection, we were fortunate in that Mr. Bell preserved his postcards in a series of albums, where he inserted, rather than glued, each postcard into paper notches on each page.

An example of one of Mr. Bell’s postcard albums with each card secured by its corners.

Therefore, each piece could be carefully removed from album pages and both sides could be scanned without the risk of damage to the backs of the cards. Bell seems to have painstakingly created the scrapbook to preserve his memories of the trip because the condition of each postcard is pristine. Hiraoka’s postcards, which were circulated rather than preserved, came unsorted in a box. Many of them were used simply to correspond with family and friends so their condition ranges from excellent to very poor. The first task was to sort through them and organize them based on the location and subject matter, which took the project team much longer than anticipated.

Creating Metadata from Historical Materials

Even if books, documents, or other research materials are digitized and put online, without informative metadata they are unlikely to be accessible. The librarians and other specialists who prepare digitized materials for researchers to use are therefore responsible for the essential work of figuring out how to create searchable data elements that provide information on the contents of a collection.

When preparing digitized versions of the Bell and Kumaichi Hiroka collections, we followed the Dublin Core standard, one of the most widely-used descriptive forms of metadata. However, because its specificity is limited for postcards, we also created in-house subjects that were specific to the content of the postcards to assist viewers in navigating the collections.

Another issue in creating metadata was dating. Although establishing when an item was created is a crucial part of evaluating any historical work, we had to estimate the year range of each postcard’s creation based on publishing conventions used in the layout of the postcards on the address side.

The year of each Japanese postcard’s creation was estimated based on stylistic characteristics. For example, if the address side featured a line dividing the space into 1/3rd and 2/3rd increments, its publication was likely c. 1907.1917. Those postcards published between c. 1933-1944 tend to have a dividing line breaking the address space into halves and also feature Japanese text written from right to left. You can see an example of this below, where Sankeien Park in Yokohama is written (in traditional characters) as 「園渓三浜横」 instead of 「横浜三渓園」.

Top: (Miyajima) Shrine and deers [back], c. 1907-1917, Kumaichi Hiraoka Postcard Collection
Bottom: Sankeien Park of Yokohama [back and front], c. 1933-1944, Bell Historical Postcard Collection


Although some postcards explicitly stated the subjects depicted, others did not, so when no titles were available a descriptive title was created. Most of Bell’s postcards provide a simple title description, such as the place, structure, or people’s names, that could be used to create the metadata for searches. However, there are about 61 postcards that have no descriptions. For these, our team created descriptive titles and placed them in brackets in order to indicate that they were created by our team and therefore an interpretive process was applied in their labeling.

[A woman in kimono holding a folding fan in her hand], c. 1918-1932, Bell Historical Postcard Collection

In contrast, the postcards that Hiraoka collected include not only images and short titles but also in-depth information. A particularly valuable feature of these cards is that they were often published with statistics, interpretations by the Japanese government and military forces about the locations, memorials, or incidents featured. For these, I decided to provide the text transcriptions as a part of the metadata to enable researchers to locate more about the historical context, how people interacted with the places and events, and daily life and everyday activities of that era.

For example, Hiraoka collected 50 postcards about Russo-Japanese War related sites. The bottom right-hand corner provides a description of the “the Monument of the Loyal Dead, Port-Arthur.” It reads “This is a monument for both soldiers, Yokogawa and Oki, who fought to the death defending their own county. On this autumn day when the peace came back to Manchuria, we were deeply moved.” (日露の戦役に護国の鬼と化した横川、沖、両志士の記念碑、満蒙の平和克服の秋、入感慨深いものがある)

The monument of the loyal dead, Port-Arthur, c. 1918-1932, Kumaichi Hiraoka Postcard Collection

Of course we also get a glimpse of daily scenes from those postcards that were actually used. A postcard sent to Hiraoka from his friends in Japan hints at candid moments for people even during tumultuous times. For instance, the postcard “Seabathing at Tanesaki Beach,” reads:

“I visited Shikoku this time. Arrived at Kochi-city and toured some places of interest. I was surprised to see the place was more developed. I saw many Lincolns and Cadillacs. Of course, many Fords. February 15th, 1927 at Kochi-city. From Furukawa.” (今回四国方面に遊びに来ました。本日高知市に着き各名所を見せて頂きました。意外に発展して居るのは実に一望xせざるを得ませんでした。此地は自動車はリンコルン並びにキャデラックが多く見受けられました。フォゝドの多いのは勿論の事です。二年二月十五日高知市にて(吉)川)

Right: Seabathing At Tanesaki Beach, c. 1918-1932, Kumaichi Hiraoka Postcard Collection

Transcribing historical forms of Japanese (kyūkanazukai 旧仮名遣い) and various handwriting styles is not an easy task. When including this information with the cards we marked illegible words with an “x” to ensure readers do not mistake the transcriptions as complete. Those who can figure out what it says are encouraged to make comments provided for on the site.

Being able to date and easily peruse the contents of these postcards collections using metadata as a guide is also helpful for comparing locations and scenes across time periods (something as valuable to historians as ethnographers or architecture specialists). Three postcards are about the scenes of Asakusa Nakamise street 浅草仲見世街. The one in the Bell Collection was created between 1918 and1932 and the two from the Hiraoka Collection were created between 1933 and 1944. They are identical images created by the same company, Seikaidō 青海堂, but one is in black & white, while the other is in color.

The UHM Library Digital Image Collections site allows one to search the entire Library’s digital collections, which can help to highlight some of these historical differences, particularly because many postcards captured buildings and structures that were rebuilt or that no longer exist. For example, when one searches with the key term “nakamise” (see above) the first three postcards that appear showcase this Asakusa area post-1933, whereas the fourth postcard shows Nakamise right after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, showing the prior destruction of this neighborhood.

Top Left: Asakusa Park in Tokyo, c. 1918-1932, Bell Historical Postcard Collection;
Top Right: The Tower "Junikai" Asakusa Park, Tokyo, c. 1890-1923, Bell Historical Postcard Collection;
Bottom: The Show Building in Asakusa Park (Tokyo Sight), c. 1918-1932, Bell Historical Postcard Collection

In the case of the Jūnikai 浅草十二階 (Ryōunkaku 浅草凌雲閣) building in Asakusa, seen in the top right of the figure above, the Bell Collection’s postcard shows us an image of a famous site no longer extant. It was constructed in 1890 but heavily damaged by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Later, it was demolished by the Japanese Military (you can view the demolition film as well). Many other postcards also provide this kind of valuable historical record.

One of the most difficult parts of metadata creation for these collections was needing information on topics that are presently under-researched. I found it especially challenging to determine information about the publishers. Some publishers imprinted their names on the cards, while others left only their trademarks. Although it was possible to locate some, it was only towards the end of the digitization project that I found one helpful article, “絵葉書ブームにおける版元―1900年代の視覚メディアをめぐって―” by Dr. Eriko Kogo 向後恵理子 (Taishō Imajuri 大正イマジュリィ 3 (2007), pp. 108-143), which also confirmed that little research has been done in this area. But as the publication date suggests, this work is relatively recent, and the task of identifying publishers will require much more extensive exploration in the future. Seeing this collection, I hope someone will be inspired to create a reference book that connects each publisher with its trademark/logo.

The Historical Postcards Today and in the Future

The University of Hawai’i Libraries opened the Bell Historical Postcard Collection and the Kumaichi Hiraoka Postcard Collection to online access in 2020 and 2021. For the Bell collection, all 344 postcards were digitized and for the Hiraoka collection some 800 cards of the over 1,000 were digitized. The remainder of the Hiraoka postcards were on non-Japanese topics and were referred to the general collection. When Hiraoka’s granddaughter learned that most of the collection was now available, she was overjoyed, remarking “You brought life to my grandfather’s postcards.” Indeed, these postcards had been stashed away and hidden for far too long, many for a century.

The advances in digitization technology and exhibition now allows us to bring historical materials long hidden away and forgotten to online spaces for all to see. We hope these two postcard collections will stimulate more interest among scholars and students and continue to inspire the preservation and research of such important cultural ephemera. To learn more about the Bell and Hiraoka collections and explore their fascinating content, you can visit the UHM Library Digital Image Collections site.

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