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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Re-Envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in Visual and Material Culture

by Paula Curtis on 2021-06-16T07:52:00-04:00 | 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

Re-Envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in Visual and Material Culture

Joanne Bernardi, Professor, Japanese and Film and Media Studies, University of Rochester


Re-Envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th Century Visual and Material Culture (REJ) encompasses a physical collection of tourism, education, and entertainment ephemera and an open-access multimedia archive that dynamically represents the collection in digital space. The project is recuperative (saving things otherwise lost to time), interpretive (organizing them in meaningful ways in critically mediated space), and generative (providing paths that allow others to discover and make use of them to generate new knowledge). I started the collection in 2000 as a personal research and teaching resource, and it is currently transitioning to the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries’ Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation in order to facilitate enhanced metadata, access, and preservation.

The collection comprises mainly common-use objects, dating from the late 19th century through the 1970s, that are seldom prioritized for detailed metadata, cataloging, and curation. The digital archive is stewarded by the library’s Digital Scholarship Lab. It accommodates a diversity of media and pathways of discovery that make objects in the collection accessible for study, facilitating connections and associations. By focusing on travel, education, and entertainment—closely related social activities contingent on the circulation, exchange, and interpretation of things through space and across time—REJ redefines ephemeral objects as important to preserve because they can help us rethink received narratives and assumptions about Japan and its place in the world during each object’s time. In a digital environment, even mundane objects emerge in sharper focus as granular evidence of individual, lived experience, or as reflections of how the world envisioned Japan and how Japan presented itself to the world over time and in broader contexts.

REJ is a long-term, open-ended project. Over the past twenty years, it has evolved organically from individual research to an interdisciplinary faculty-library-student collaboration with research and teaching objectives. A selection of individual and group presentations describing the project can be accessed on the digital archive (“Select Presentations”). In this introduction I outline REJ’s background, provide an overview of the collection (including its audiovisual focus), and suggest ways to mobilize REJ in the classroom.



I started the REJ collection in 2000. This impulse to seek out tangible traces of the recent past was a natural extension of my work researching silent cinema in Japan, a subject seldom cited without disclaiming its dearth of surviving, accessible artifacts. At the time, I was preoccupied with the relationship between material loss and the history-making process, and how the political and cultural significance that objects and images gain through circulation and exchange can be maintained only insofar as these social interactions are sustained or acknowledged as an important part of our past. I was initially drawn to vintage postcards as visual records of place, especially the urban landscapes that might have been captured on film. There is in fact a close correlation between postcards and early cinema, especially travel films, as popular forms of media, evidence of place, and embodiments of image and movement (travel by people and the circulation of things). The first postcards that I collected helped determine REJ’s subsequent focus on the broadly defined categories of tourism, education, and entertainment, and they remain the largest media format represented in the collection.

I was increasingly drawn to representational practices that promoted Japan as a tourist destination and the predominance of objects generated by travel and education. The natural kinship between these two activities soon emerged as the collection’s connective tissue. “Tourist Japan” was an early title for the project, linking the virtual armchair traveler with tourists moving through physical space. By 2002, my collecting led to an eponymous, dedicated course that I continue to teach today. The course was initially more narrowly focused on the relationship between the rise of 20th century tourism, cultural flow, and Japan’s modernization processes and identity formation. Over time, the course’s framework and materials shifted in tandem with the collection’s growth as it organically evolved from questions and lines of investigation derived from the objects themselves.

By 2011, the collection had reached sizable proportions, prompting my collaboration with library colleagues in order to strategically digitize objects and build a prototype digital archive in WordPress (2013-2016). This marked a consequential change in the project’s direction and the structure of “Tourist Japan.” I had turned to technological mediation in order to facilitate access and collaboration, but the process of creating the best possible digital copies of REJ’s diverse formats and the interdisciplinary, collaborative work involved in designing an effective digital environment for their display underscored the project’s uniquely syncretic relationship between material and digital worlds. “Tourist Japan” students have always worked with the objects in the REJ collection as an alternative approach to understanding 20th century Japan through patterns of production and use, human interaction and cross-cultural exchange. By introducing the digital archive as a pedagogical tool, however, I was able to transform the course into a heuristic digital humanities lab. Students could now interact with the archive and explore the skills involved in cataloging and curation while haptically studying the objects in the collection. This allowed them to move from knowledge organization to knowledge creation in a digital environment.

REJ evolved further in 2017, when we decided to migrate the contents of the prototype WordPress archive to the current iteration built in Omeka. Omeka’s potential for creating metadata as a critical and participatory practice and plug-ins that extended its functionality created new opportunities for making objects accessible online. Omeka also made it easier for students to collaborate when creating metadata, researching, and interpreting the objects, and gaining experience in digital curation. Collaboration—not only among students, but with other individual users and collecting institutions—has always been an important objective, and transitioning the archive to Omeka brought REJ one step closer to realizing this goal.

A heterogeneous collection

The REJ collection’s approximately 5,000 postcards and 3,000 objects in other media formats are of mixed origin, but they were mostly made for Japanese- or English-language audiences. As such, they denote points of contact between Japan and the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK. Only a portion of these objects have been digitized and made accessible in the Omeka archive. Reiteratively exploring ways to maintain each object’s unique materiality in order to make the best digital surrogates is an ongoing, labor-intensive process. In the case of films, this process is also expensive.

When we migrated the digital archive from WordPress to Omeka in 2017, we were challenged by the prospect of translating my taxonomy for the collection’s organizational schema from WordPress to Omeka. This taxonomy is important because it mirrors the intellectual work of curating the collection. In WordPress, the taxonomy formed the basis of five heterarchical core categories or “galleries:” Edification & Information, Leisure & Entertainment, Moving Images, Postcards, and Tourism & Travel. These categories were then parsed into subcategories representing specific thematic threads or media formats. Users could access objects according to an organizational schema determined by theme and (in the case of postcards and moving images) format.

We decided to streamline navigation in Omeka by using a format-only organizational schema with the following core categories: Sheet Music, Film, Bibliographic Materials, Brochures and Pamphlets, 3D Objects, Print Ephemera, Postcards, and Photos. On the one hand, the Omeka archive’s simplified schema eliminates a problem we encountered in WordPress, where postcards were located according to either format or theme in a seemingly arbitrary manner. On the other hand, the simplified schema in Omeka required us to devise a way to retain the collection’s original and still-relevant thematic categories. We are addressing this by integrating these thematic categories as part of the project’s controlled vocabulary and using them in the ongoing process of tagging objects. They are also being used in the finding aid that is currently underway for objects in the digital archive.

Postcard subgenres determined many of REJ’s thematic areas of focus. These subgenres include advertising; notable personal messages (often from Japanese pen pals to their English-language counterparts); cities and sites (especially locations considered emblematic of Japan); children; colonial subjects; commemorative postcards; illustrated postcards; postcards of the imperial family; Japanese military and patriotic themes; WWII anti-Japanese propaganda; occupations; women; postcards documenting Japan’s presence at World Fairs and other international and domestic exhibitions; postcards reflecting Japan’s rising profile in the international world order (e.g., Japan’s inclusion in series such as “Our Allies” and “Flags of All Nations”); Japanese gardens abroad (often in surprisingly out-of-the-way places or personal residences); and a number of postcards depicting an imaginary Japan, such as various “Japanese Villages” in the US and Europe. The largest number of postcards belongs to the core thematic category of Tourism & Travel, which includes transportation by air, land, and sea.

“Japan” at Revere Beach, Mass. and Ontario Beach, Rochester NY.


Looking at the collection more broadly, other objects include shopping guides and advertising ephemera (e.g., trade cards); souvenirs and brochures from international expositions, exhibitions, and world fairs; “Japanesque” or Japan-inspired sheet music; several genres of literature, including magazines, memoirs, travel books, and children’s literature (notably, an almost complete run of Silver Bells of Hiroshima, 1952-1955); and photographs, glass slides, and stereographs. We also house bibliographic and printed ephemera related to general culture, history, and language; missionary and social work ephemera; WWII propaganda (both US and Japanese origin); and objects dating from or related to the Allied Occupation. The largest core thematic category, “Tourism & Travel,” includes general and site-specific guidebooks, maps, travel and hotel brochures, pamphlets, and ephemera related to both international and domestic travel.

1933 Chicago World’s Fair souvenir. Mae Kanazawa Hara was one of the tea servers.
She describes the event online (, YouTube)

The sheet music and films in the REJ collection warrant special mention because the audio and video files we created and their presentation enhance the archive’s multimedia dimension. I was fortunate to be able to capitalize on the expertise and facilities of local colleagues and cultural institutions in creating these audio and digital files.

The collection includes over 200 pieces of sheet music about or inspired by Japan that range from selections from Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1885 Mikado to WWII anti-Japanese propaganda. Forty-six of these songs were recorded under the direction of my colleague, Dr. Philip Carli, by a team of graduate students at the Eastman School of Music. As shown in the example on the right from Yama san (1902), the presence of audio files is indicated by arrows located in the metadata for these select objects.

The collection also includes approximately 200 small-gauge (16mm, Regular or Standard 8mm, and Super 8mm) films, including amateur and educational films, stock footage, TV commercials, documentaries, and films marketed for home entertainment. There are critical intersections between small-gauge films, tourism, and education, especially during the 1920s and 30s, and again after World War II through the 1970s. Many of these are digitized and available for streaming, allowing users to consider them in the context of other objects in the collection. I am collaborating with other film archives to include archival films beyond the REJ collection. For example, Japan as Seen from a Rickshaw (ca. 1930-1931) by a member of the Amateur Cinema League, and Wyeth’s World Cruise: Across Japan in Cherry Blossom Time (Charles Wyeth, 1932), which includes scenes of Korea under Japanese colonial rule, are held by George Eastman Archive. Most of the films included in the collection, however, are orphan films or deaccessioned film prints from institutional collections. Some of the films in the latter category appear in the archive but are not yet available to stream because of ongoing copyright research.

The films are categorized in the archive by gauge and can be accessed through customized timelines as well as the site’s navigational menus. Users can view streaming films in a custom-built Video Player that allows them to change playback speeds by manipulating the frame rate in the upper right-hand corner of the Viewer window. This is useful for footage that was shot at slower speeds but later duplicated at 24 frames per second. This is the case, for example, for the oldest images in the collection that appear to have been shot sometime around 1905-1910 but were acquired as a reel of stock footage dating from the 1960s.

In presenting the films, we emphasized the physicality of film as a material object. Adding these films to REJ has been a labor intensive but rewarding process. The collection is full of surprises. The composer Takemitsu Tōru, known for his New Wave film soundtracks in the 1960s and 1970s, also scored a film in 1961 for the Japan External Trade Organization. Bing Crosby narrates Kyoto Saturday Afternoon (1952), a film about a day in the life of foreign missionaries. In Lantern Serenade (1961), commissioned by the Philadelphia Dairy Council, an American governess admonishes the Japanese emperor’s sons that “fish is delicious and rice is nice,” but to grow big and strong they should drink milk four times a day.

Mobilizing the Collection in the Classroom

“Tourist Japan” is a problem- and object-based course providing students with an opportunity to work directly with the objects in the Re-Envisioning Japan collection and digital archive. “Tourist Japan” changes slightly from year to year, but a recent syllabus is available online with links or citations for some of the resources I mention below. The course, like the REJ project, is now a collaborative effort. During the first two or three weeks of class, students work with colleagues in the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation to learn best practices in working with special collections and creating metadata. The course also includes two field trips to local cultural institutions. At George Eastman Museum, students view early photographic images of Japan, and at the Memorial Art Gallery they ponder over tea box labels of unknown provenance illustrated in the Japanese style but believed to be locally made. Nevertheless, colleagues with only remote access to the REJ digital archive have successfully used it as a teaching resource, so I close with a brief description of how I incorporate REJ in “Tourist Japan” in case my approach might be useful for others.

I introduce students to REJ during the first week of class by asking them to browse through the archive and write a brief response about one film and one object in another format. I also show them “The World’s Fair in a Nutshell,” an “Object Encounter” that we devised as a prototype curatorial feature in Omeka for showcasing individual objects. These “Object Encounters,” visual explorations of an object with a minimum of narrative intervention, are inspired by the step-by-step process of material culture analysis formulated by Jules David Prown. After the first week, I scaffold hands-on classroom exercises into the course to provide students with the tools they will need to make their own “Object Encounter” as a final project. (These final student projects are added to the archive and can be accessed from the main menu.) These exercises include a metadata workshop in which groups of students work with objects from three different media formats, and opportunities to practice creating metadata online in a dedicated Omeka “sandbox” site.

Finally, students create or modify metadata in the REJ digital archive as a contribution to the project. We also practice Prownian analysis with a variety of objects, but I always begin with an “inscrutable” object that is challenging to identify. For this exercise, I use an obsolete kitchen object that students immediately think they can recognize because it resembles a familiar (but different) common-use object. I also recommend “Twenty questions to ask an object,” a modified version of the classic game devised by the Material Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association (see questions here and a video of the 2014 Caucus session on YouTube).

It is always preferable to be able to work directly with physical objects in class, but it is also possible to work solely with the object’s digital surrogates, as I discovered myself during the pandemic. Similarly, although the “Object Encounters” in the REJ archive were created by students who had access to the archive’s backend, students can also successfully create “Object Encounters” using PowerPoint or Google Slides.

Re-Envisioning Japan’s potential for collaborative research remains largely untapped even though collaboration motivated the creation of an open-access digital archive. I have written elsewhere about ideas we have for moving forward in this direction. I welcome any questions about collaboration or using REJ for research and teaching at

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