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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Grassroots Operations of the Japanese Empire

by Paula Curtis on 2023-09-13T08:37:49-04:00 | 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

Sayaka Chatani, Associate Professor of History, National University of Singapore

As a multilingual scholar in Asia teaching in English-speaking classrooms, I decided to launch Grassroots Operations of the Japanese Empire out of one of my main frustrations in teaching about the Japanese Empire: a lack of translated primary sources. As many of us shift our emphasis from lecturing on historical information to having students practice history, reading primary sources is an important part of our pedagogy. Through engaging with primary sources, students face the uncertainty of “facts” versus interpretation, obtain an invaluable opportunity to apply their knowledge, become invigorated by the need to expand their background knowledge, and are exposed to more personalized views of historical moments. Though the number of translated sourcebooks is increasing, they usually follow either a theme or genre, or else focus on canonical texts that reinforce popularized (or officially sanctioned) views of history. Many eclectic writings, be it government officials’ internal memos, magazine articles, newspaper commentaries, or fictional works, do not find a way into these publications. The Grassroots Operations of the Japanese Empire project, begun in 2021, seeks to diversify these narratives and make new avenues for historical interpretation accessible to educators and their students.

The landing page of Grassroots Operations of the Japanese Empire.

Grassroots Operations of the Japanese Empire aims to help instructors of college and high school history courses in two ways. One is by providing the English translations of primary sources on various aspects of the Japanese Empire. Each entry consists of an expert’s introduction that provides the basic context, a translation of a primary source, discussion questions, the source information, and a list of further readings. These entries are designed to be used as a reading assignment that would generate class discussion, or a prompt for an essay assignment. Because most of the entries are based on research articles and books that scholars have written, these entries can be a good supplement to assign together with their scholarly works.

The website also helps instructors by providing a platform for students to share their translation projects and research on the contexts. At my institution, the National University of Singapore (NUS), a portion of students have high capability in translating Chinese (and sometimes other languages) into English. In my upper-level seminars, I give students a choice to write an essay on the context of a primary source and a translation of the text as a final assignment. They usually find the original texts in open domain databases, and if their sources come from archives and publications, we look into any potential copyright issues before their translations are published online.

With students’ permission, I edit some of their materials and turn them into entries on the Grassroots Operations website. Students report that this sharing of their work in a public-facing venue lets them experience the joy of producing knowledge for the world, not just doing the coursework for the sake of their own education.

The principle behind the sources featured on the website is “eclectic” and “no deliberate selection,” with the only criteria being readability for non-experts. In other words, Grassroots Operations of the Japanese Empire, at least for the time being, deliberately leaves source selection to happenstance encounters, guided by the interests and research paths of the scholars and students who contribute. The digital format and web-based distribution allows this freedom and avoids the pitfalls of those sourcebooks focusing on more conventional topics. Within the website itself, too, the display of content reflects no clear hierarchy or forced categorizations. The page offers tags (keywords), regional categories, and a search box for easy navigation, but is not heavily curated towards a singular user experience.

The keyword search and regional categories of the sources.

That said, because most of the entries thus far have been created by field experts, they offer not only colorful anecdotes that give life to experiences under the empire–such as how young couples in colonial Taiwan were advised against interethnic marriage or how a story depicted a Korean woman crossing the border from Korea to Manchuria in the early 1930s–but also convey the complexity of those historical moments.

The collection also includes some very important historical sources. For example, James Gerien-Chen (University of Florida) contributed a translation of the 1923 colonial Taiwanese petition for establishing a parliament (Reasons for Requesting the Establishment of a Taiwanese Parliament). We decided to translate longer excerpts from this original text in contrast to other, shorter, entries in order to convey the thoroughness of the petition’s argument. Dr. Gerien-Chen then attached a substantial explanation of the context to provide readers a fuller understanding of what the document was and what it sought to accomplish. As a result, the entry totaled more than 6,000 words, making it one of the few entries on Grassroots Operations that could be read in place of an academic article.

The Petition for the Establishment of a Taiwanese Parliament” (1923)

Another important document, “Concerning the Management of Women Traveling to China,” was translated and introduced by Amy Stanley (Northwestern University). This 1938 document by Japan’s Home Ministry has layers of context that are not necessarily clear in a cursory reading of the document. On the surface, it bans the underage recruitment and coerced traveling of prostitutes from Japan to China. It is therefore quoted selectively by many historical denialists of comfort women history today as “evidence” that women were not coerced into sexual labor (rather, that they were recruited willingly) and that the state bore no responsibility. In introduction, Dr. Stanley unpacks the background of this text, particularly the League of Nations’ inspection of human trafficking in Japan, to reveal what this document aimed to achieve and why it was written in such vague terms that it can be easily misused in the present. This entry demonstrates the importance of historical contextualization and, as the first full translation of a document that has been embedded in misinformation and disinformation efforts for years, is critically important for combatting the ongoing project of historical denialism.

Naimushō keihokyokuchō, “Shina tokō fujo no toriatsukai kansuru ken,” 1938

Another entry popular among students is one by Christopher Smith (University of Florida), The End of the Battleship Yamato (1946). This entry offers a rare translation of an early version of the well-known novel, the End of the Battleship Yamato, which depicted the battleship’s final moment during its one-way mission to Okinawa in April 1945. Dr. Smith presented an elegant translation of the prose poem that characterizes the early version. With the translation of the later and more famous publication (1978) readily available, this entry provides a great opportunity for students to compare and contrast the two versions and develop an understanding of memories, the fluidity of research resources, and historical methods.

Having English-speaking students in mind, the website also offers a long list of other translated sources that are readily available. The list includes other websites, sourcebooks, databases, online collections, images, fictional works, and videos. In other words, if students are exploring ideas for research papers on the Japanese Empire, but without knowledge of Asian languages, this list can serve as a starting point that directs them to a topic or a source, rather than seeing the Grassroots Operations site as a final destination for their research.

With this in mind, it is important to remember that Grassroots Operations of the Japanese Empire is not designed to serve as a systematic, comprehensive database. It is one path into a much broader landscape of research materials, not a landing page for exhaustive introductory information. In order to use these entries most effectively, instructors might need basic knowledge on the Japanese Empire.

The goal of the Grassroots Operations of the Japanese Empire project is to bridge research and education, providing ways for instructors to demonstrate in their classrooms how reading primary sources and generating inductive inquiries can lead to an analytical argument–or in other words, let students experience the joy of historians’ work. So far, I have only had NUS students work on creating the entries or doing the translation, but I am encouraging other instructors to have their students’ projects shared on this platform. Read this page for more information about how to contribute translations.

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