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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Exploring Premodern Japan through Video: A Collaborative Project at the University of British Columbia

by Paula Curtis on 2022-02-16T10:57:38-05:00 | 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

Miaoling Xue, Ph.D. student, Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia


In the fall of 2019, a group of scholars from the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia (Haley Blum, José Manuel Escalona Echániz, Christina Laffin, Saeko Suzuki, and Miaoling Xue) launched an educational video project titled Exploring Premodern Japan. Project members interviewed eleven specialists and practitioners in fields related to premodern Japan, including scholars and noh actors. Once in-person meetings became impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic, team members collaborated remotely while responding to transformations in teaching modalities and learning approaches. The project currently has produced nine videos with two to follow. The Exploring Premodern Japan project is generously sponsored by the Global Japanese Studies Model Unit at Waseda University, the Toshiba International Foundation, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Exploring Premodern Japan YouTube channel and video thumbnails.

The video series draws from field experts while guiding the viewer through the world of premodern Japan. The current videos examine “records (ki)” and the ancient East Asian literary world, Japanese books (wahon), the travelogue Kaidōki, tale literature (monogatari bungaku) and Genji manuscripts, screens as cultural objects within the Sinographic sphere, and how/why The Pillow Book has been read over the centuries. Below, Project Manager Miaoling Xue offers a window into the project’s development and the challenges the team faced during the pandemic.

Behind the Scenes

Exploring Premodern Japan attempts to connect the study of Japan’s early history and culture with a broader audience by using audio-visual materials to convey expert knowledge and support current approaches to research and teaching. Before embarking on filming, the team dedicated time to planning the parameters of the project.

We held several meetings in Dr. Laffin’s office to produce a project brief determining the number of videos we would create, the style and format we envisioned, the equipment and technical support required, and the locations and set-up needed for a seamless shoot. We then confirmed a preliminary filming schedule with our videographer, Oliver Mann.

Right: Exploring Premodern Japan Video Project: Behind the Scenes. Featured in the video are Dr. Unno Keisuke from the National Institute of Japanese Literature (NIJL), Dr. Christina Laffin, and Oliver Mann from the Faculty of Arts, UBC.

On a rainy day in mid-September 2019, we began our first filming session inside Dr. Laffin’s office with Dr. Ono Yasuo from Chuo University. From September 2019 to February 2020, at a time when we could still physically gather, we completed eleven interviews with the help of our videographer, Oliver Mann. Little did we know that just a few weeks later, our world would be transformed and we would need to find new ways to carry out the project.

In order to ensure a smooth flow to our (now remote) collaboration process, each person had a role to play that we carefully coordinated with one another. Dr. Laffin secured funding for the project and continues to keep sponsors informed of our progress. Both Dr. Laffin and Haley Blum function as script and slide editors and proofreaders. Saeko Suzuki is our copyright specialist who helps members secure permissions and provides guidance regarding procedures, such as drafting email templates and request forms. José Manuel Escalona Echániz produces the animations, such as maps that are designed to engage audiences. I serve as the Project Manager, responsible for coordinating the team, monitoring tasks, and delivering videos in a timely manner (and on budget). I also lead the team as we plan for video release and circulation. This structure allows members to work independently but cooperatively and to respond swiftly when needed.

As part of my duties as Project Manager, before we began in earnest, I edited a pilot video and designed a flowchart to help team members develop a standardized onboarding experience. I used four different colors to show a breakdown of the video production stages necessary to successfully produce our videos.

The process flowchart designed by Miaoling Xue.

Blue represents steps to complete the final version of a script in English; green indicates the process to obtain copyrighted visual/audio materials; red shows the steps for video editing; and yellow the processes involved in video distribution, promotion and optimization. We set all our videos at a length of ten to fifteen minutes to create balance in terms of the time and labor each team member would contribute. We assigned one lead member for each video, but some members also serve as specialists overseeing particular areas of expertise.

Maximizing Learning through Multimedia Content

With the ubiquitous consumption of videos in daily life and the need for greater digital literacy, video-based learning plays an increasingly significant role in pedagogy. One of our project goals for Exploring Premodern Japan was not to simply provide scholarship in a new medium but to present open educational resources that were thoughtfully created, collaboratively produced, and actively disseminated.

Despite our enthusiasm, we found that making content accessible to broad audiences was not easy. One of the challenges we encountered was how to make key concepts and terminology understandable and interesting before offering a more detailed perspective on a scholar’s research, a concern we revisited when filming, editing, and distributing. During the interview, we asked speakers to very briefly define approaches and ideas, responding to broad questions like “What is The Pillow Book?” and “What is Tantric Buddhism?” After editing the interviews, we integrate on-screen display texts and symbols, as well as animated maps, to provide details that draw viewers’ attention to key information. Background music and images offer texture and a more robust sensory experience for viewers. In distributing the videos online, we consider existing knowledge our audience might have about each video topic and add tags accordingly. Audiences can watch our videos at their own pace, and we hope they will spark further exploration of topics related to premodern Japan. In the YouTube video description for our series, we provide a bibliography for further analog and digital resources to encourage further engagement.

We invite you to view our Exploring Premodern Japan series and subscribe to the channel with hopes that students, teachers, researchers, and anyone with an interest in Japanese culture will find the videos useful. We intend to continue to grow the channel and an associated website.

Left: A group picture taken together with Dr. Niimi Akihiko from Waseda University and his children.

The official website, led by Saeko Suzuki, aims to promote the Exploring Premodern Japan project to a broader audience. Currently still in the works, the site will include a brief introduction video explaining the project, a collection of educational content related to premodern literature and culture, and visual images and sound recordings that supplement the videos.

Please stay tuned for the next set of videos in March 2022 featuring Lucia Dolce (Numata Professor, SOAS University of London), Abe Yasurō (Professor, Ryukoku University), and Thomas McAuley (Senior Lecturer, University of Sheffield).


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