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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Discovering & Exploring Documents on Japanese Mountain Worship in the Sakuramotobō Collection

by Paula Curtis on 2021-09-15T12:02:00-04:00 | 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

Original article by Stephanie Ramírez, former Library Communications Specialist and Staff Writer, Princeton University, with additional comments by Thomas D. Conlan (Professor of East Asian Studies and History, Princeton University)

Primary sources allow for academic exchanges, advances in research, and aid teaching as well. The acquisition of a series of documents from Sakuramotobō by Princeton University allowed for academic exchanges among US and Japanese scholars and conservationists. The following article by Stephanie Ramirez recounts the initial discovery and activities for these documents. Thomas Conlan adds a postscript describing the most recent developments concerning Sakuramotobō documents in 2019-2021.

The Sakuramotobō documents upon arrival to Princeton. Photo by Setsuko Noguchi, Princeton University Library (PUL)


In 2015, Thomas Conlan, Japanese historian and Princeton University Professor of East Asian Studies and History, sought a set of “komonjo,” or Japanese medieval documents, for his graduate seminars in ancient and medieval Japanese history. As he often did, he collaborated with Princeton University Library (PUL) Japanese Studies Librarian, Setsuko Noguchi, to acquire a collection that his students could study and transcribe. The two purchased a set of documents from Yoshino, Nara prefecture in Japan, but what they found was rarer and more significant than they ever anticipated.

The documents originated from Sakuramotobō, a famous temple which lodged pilgrims who ascended and worshipped its nearby mountains and a center for Shugendō, a belief system that centered on mountain asceticism. Sakuramotobō, one of many temples founded in Yoshino in the seventh century, suffered because the Meiji government declared that native “Shintō” shrines and Buddhist temples should be distinct. As a result, Shugendō was banned. Many old records were lost, including the earlier Sakuramotobō documents.

“This mountain worship has left very few sources,” Conlan said. “What happened was in 1868, the Japanese government declared this to be a heretical set, and a lot of these records were destroyed. Some things survived, maybe the link to political leaders. But these kinds of documents don’t survive otherwise.”

Discovery and preparation

Before purchase, they learned that a set of documents from Yoshino contained items dated from the 14th century to the 17th century, including five 14th- and early 15th-century bills of sale from women to other women, which are unique. For centuries, the documents were forgotten, serving as insulation for a fusuma paper sliding door, and the sellers themselves were unaware of the items’ content.

Image (right): Professor Thomas Conlan, center, and research team observe rare medieval Japanese documents in the PUL Conservation Lab. Photo by Setsuko Noguchi, Princeton University Library (PUL)

“That’s the other irony about this,” Conlan commented. “[The documents were] cherished for a long time, for centuries after the original creation. But after about 500 years, [they] use[d] it for the door. . .and that allowed it to survive that very dangerous moment.”

When the materials arrived at Princeton, they were heavily disorganized, wrinkled and fragmented. The pair worked with Ted Stanley, Special Collections Paper Conservator, PUL Conservation Department, and other Japanese scholars on campus to prepare the documents for Conlan’s classes, humidifying and flattening the fragments. It was then that they noticed the documents’ origin. Immediately, the team postponed using them in the classroom and instead decided to conduct further research.

But preparation was half the battle.

In July 2018, Conlan and Noguchi invited four researchers from the Historiographical Institute at the University of Tokyo (HITU) – Masaharu Ebara, Yasufumi Horikawa, Akihiko Takashima, and Akiyoshi Tani – to help identify the nature of the documents, organize the materials, and transcribe the content. Takashima, a paper conservator, and Stanley teamed up to identify each document’s paper origin, reuniting several fragments based on the paper’s fiber structure. At the PUL Preservation Lab, Tani photographed each fragment, while the rest of the team organized the fragments and accompanying data. Ebara and Horikawa, professors of medieval Japanese history at the University of Tokyo, read each item, transcribed the oldest fragments, and reunited 25 documents in the process.


In total, the boxes purchased contained 131 separate documents, 44 of which were written between 1308 and 1600. The remainder were written after 1600 with the last documents in the set dating from the late 17th century. In the collection, the earliest dated occurrence of the name Sakuramotobō predates the oldest year recorded in the temple’s official history.

Many documents were addressed to the Sakuramotobō temple itself or to individuals affiliated with the temple. Sixteen documents relate to the activities of visiting Yoshino Mountain, such as tour fees and lodging arrangements, which show the relationships between Yoshino Shugendō, worshippers, guides, and tours. Scholars of Japanese history and religion previously knew of only six such documents, and Princeton’s papers are older than the documents known previously.

For the team, it was particularly interesting that many documents were written by women and that the papers exchanged between women were of better quality than those exchanged between men.

The collection also allowed them to reconstruct connections between Sakuramotobō and other temples, centers, and provinces in Japan. Deeds for property and letters of credit were also included in the set, documents useful for economic historians.


For Conlan, Princeton’s acquisition will “allow [the documents] to be known and accessible in a way they probably wouldn’t have [otherwise]. . .” Going forward, the team hopes to build further awareness of and accessibility to the new sources.

Image (left): Japanese Studies Librarian Setsuko Noguchi, right, and Masaharu Ebara, Tokyo University professor, left, analyze the documents at East Asian Library. Photo by Thomas Conlan, Princeton University

PUL's East Asian Library will organize the collection in chronological order, then match each item to its respective transcription, and later add the materials to the Library’s catalog. The Conservation Department, along with HITU, will work on future preservation, finding the best practices and storage methods (such as how fragments of the same document should be handled). As the documents frequently refer to geographical data such as location of temples, Noguchi hopes to work with the PUL Maps and Geospatial Information Center (located in Lewis Science Library) to create supplementary maps.

Once the documents are ready, Professor Conlan and his graduate students will work on translations. The team aims to organize a conference to share their findings with the university community. They also hope to invite to campus a Shugendō specialist who can further compare Princeton’s material with existing official records of Sakuramotobō.

Ultimately, the goal is to digitize the documents so that these rare primary sources inspire further research in an area of studies that historically lacks materials of this kind. At Princeton University, the research project was funded by Princeton University Library, the Department of East Asian Studies, and the East Asian Studies Program. The Tokyo Partnership Funds also contributed to the project.

Postscript by Thomas Conlan:

In 2019, Professors Ebara Masaharu, Horikawa Yasufumi, Takashima Akihiko, a paper conservator, and Tani Akiyoshi, specialist and scholar of photography, returned to Princeton during the week of July 21-27, where they further photographed and analyzed the Sakuramotobō documents. They once again worked closely with Thomas Conlan, Setsuko Noguchi, and Ted Stanley. Important strides were made in conservation, as disparate documents which had been glued together were removed. Although each piece is stored separately, related fragments were photographed together and a comprehensive catalogue of the documents was created.

Thanks to the support of the Toshiba International Foundation (TIFO) and the Princeton East Asain Studies Department, East Asian Studies Program and the Todai Princeton Partnership, a one-day conference, New Trends in the Study of Medieval Japanese Documents was held at Princeton on July 25, 2019. The conference consisted of presentations on various topics in medieval Japanese history by graduate students (Megan Gilbert, David Romney and Nathan Ledbetter) and early career scholars (Horikawa Yasufumi) in the morning, and the afternoon was devoted to explaining the history and significance of the Sakuramotobō documents, as well as highlighting issues concerning the materiality of this sources, including a pathbreaking analysis of types of paper, or concerns regarding the use and preservation of old images. The schedule and the translated presentations have been made available online at

Finally, the medieval documents have been transcribed and published in the Research Annual of the Historiographical Institute (東京大学史料編纂所紀要) no. 31 (March 2021): 162-189. Students in Thomas Conlan’s EAS 525 course, “Sources in Ancient and Medieval Japanese History” translated some of these documents in the Fall of 2019, while students currently taking this course in the Fall of 2021 will translate more. We hope to make some of these images and translations available online in a way similar to other teaching and research resources currently hosted on our websites on historical texts: Komonjo and Tannowa Collection: The Kyoto Princeton Project.

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