The Newsletter 92 Summer 2022

Recent Developments in Digital Japanese Studies

Paula R. Curtis

Over the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has invigorated discussions of the so-called “digital shift,” bringing new visibility to the significance of online and open-access resources for research and teaching. Though Digital Humanities (DH) as a field has been active and evolving over the last several decades, its intersections with conventional modes of scholarly engagement and pedagogy are still occurring in fits and starts across different disciplines and geographic specializations. In North America, which hosts the vast majority of Asian Studies programs, we are still seeing that East Asian languages, including Japanese, have been slow to gain representation in digital educational and research offerings despite an overall growth in interest and demand.

Though occasional presentations on digital Japanese Studies have been held at the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) and other conferences over the last decade, a 2016 University of Chicago workshop – The Impact of the Digital in Japanese Studies – was among the first to explicitly address the topic. While in attendance, the 13 presenters and the audience of scholars, librarians, and data science professionals emphasized the need to centralize efforts to build a digital Japan community, leading to a Japanese Language Text Mining Workshop held at Emory University in 2017. This event was attended by 25-30 participants and funded by the Japan Foundation. The original 2016 presenters subsequently met again at a 2018 workshop to discuss the progress of their work and brainstorm future directions for digital Japan scholarship.

These gatherings underscored the need to actively create community spaces for digital scholarship in Japanese Studies, particularly in more accessible and inclusive ways. This led to the creation of the Digital Humanities Japan initiative, which hosts a scholars’ database, a mailing list, and a wiki on Japanese digital tools, tutorials, and publications. The DH Japan project will hopefully continue to grow.

In 2019, AAS held its first “Digital Expo” to highlight advances in digitally-inflected Asian Studies research and teaching; the event included work by five scholars of Japan. In June of 2019, six Japanese scholars made a special effort to bring their knowledge to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria, one of the premier digital humanities training venues. They offered a week-long course, “Digital Humanities for Japanese Culture: Resources & Methods,” which was attended by 11 participants, including graduate students, tenured faculty, and librarians. The course covered topics such as the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), crowdsourced transcriptions, and more, helping to fill instructional and networking gaps keenly felt in North America and other areas outside of Japan.

Although AAS 2020 was canceled, the 2021 conference saw a significant increase in the number of Japanese DH-related presentations, with six on-demand sessions and at least five panels in which a digital Japan-specific topic was presented. The virtual DH Japan Meeting-in-Conjunction was attended by over 30 people.

In June 2021, Paul Vierthaler (a specialist in Chinese literature at William & Mary) and myself were invited to run a four-day virtual course, East Asian Studies and Digital Humanities, for the University of Pennsylvania’s Dream Lab program in DH training. We covered a wide range of subjects at the introductory level from the perspective of East Asian Studies. We explicitly stated that we would prioritize graduate students and contingent faculty applicants. Nevertheless, our applicant pool was still nearly three times larger than the 25 participants we could accept, and over one-third were Japan-focused. Because we held the course virtually, we had participants from as far as Korea, the Czech Republic, and Chile. The great international demand for East Asia-focused digital education, particularly at the introductory level, signals the growing relevance of this field and the gap students and faculty face between demand and supply. We will hold another introduction to EAS DH course in June 2022. Given the incredible number of applicants from overseas, we will continue to offer it virtually. Also on the horizon is another Japanese-language text mining workshop from Digital Humanities Japan collaborators, which will be conducted at the University of Chicago in June 2022.

Despite challenges for obtaining training in Digital Humanities through East Asian Studies, a large number of academic job advertisements list digital studies as a desired field. Thus far in the 2021-2022 academic job cycle (July 2021-March 2022), among postings specifically seeking specialists in some aspect of East Asia, a total of 56 positions have included the term “digital,” with 26 specifying a desire for “digital humanities.” Other relevant phrases include “digital technologies,” “digital pedagogy,” and “digital media,” among many others. Of these 56 posts, 18 ads seek a specialization in Japan and the digital, with 20 such ads for generalist East Asia positions (that could include Japan). With four months remaining in the annual job market cycle, these numbers already exceed the 2020-2021 academic year, which featured 33 “digital” ads, eight of which were Japan-focused. Harvard University’s Japan Digital Research Center and Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies have previously hosted a digital Japan postdoctoral researcher, with two fellows taking up the role over the past several years. This year, the University of Texas at Austin is offering two postdoctoral positions at their newly-established Japan Lab, specializing in history and literature, respectively. The creation of the Japan Lab marks new institutional investment in Japan-centric digital studies in the Anglophone world, the first of its kind at a public university.

As for digital resource development, in partnership with Michael Emmerich of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), work is currently underway to build a new online platform for resources in Japanese Studies known as Japan Past & Present (JPP). This is a collaborative venture with UCLA and Waseda University, sponsored by the Yanai Initiative. JPP will serve as a central hub for digitally-accessible Japanese Studies materials in a variety of languages. In the future, it will sponsor events and projects related to Japanese Studies as well.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the acceleration of digital activity over the last two years has generated new opportunities for community building and scholarly exchange in virtual spaces. We would be wise to leverage these changes to advocate for expanded support in the intersecting fields of Japanese (and East Asian) Studies and Digital Humanities at the institutional level and to continue building an infrastructure that allows us to share knowledge, offer educational opportunities, and promote interdisciplinary and international collaborations.


Paula R. Curtis, Postdoctoral Fellow, Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, University of California, Los Angeles,