5 Essential Japanese Collections for China Scholars


Reflections on 5 collections in Japan essential for China scholars

– National Diet Library (国立国会図書館). Tokyo, Japan [website] – Waseda University Library (早稲田大学図書館). Tokyo, Japan [website] – Tōyō Bunko, or The Oriental Library (東洋文庫). Tokyo, Japan [website] – Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (外交史料館), Tokyo Japan (Previously named the Diplomatic Record Office)
– National Archives of Japan (国立公文書館). Tokyo, Japan [website]

My first few days in Japan this time around were pretty rough: I’d just come off a year in China, and every time I opened my mouth to answer a question the only thing that came out was Chinese. But after settling in and allowing my brain to switch to Japanese mode, I quickly remembered that I had about a month to collect documents at five different research facilities in the Tokyo area. I had to remind myself numerous times that this was entirely feasible.

My current research focuses on Japanese involvement with Muslims in China prior to and during the Second World War. Undoubtedly, archival and library research in Japan are indispensible. Having already spent three months in Japan two summers ago, I came back with a more focused agenda, a short time to get what a needed, and very good idea of how I was going to hit up three libraries and two archives in one month. In Japan, with forethought and a fully loaded Suica card, plans like these are completely achievable.

All facilities listed above are open during regular business hours, Monday through Friday, with the exception of the National Diet Library, which stays open until 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, and is open 9:30-5:00 on Saturdays. In Japan, all operating hours are official and the only people “xuixi-ing” [trans. “resting”] are the geriatric genealogists taking their post-lunch naps on the comfortable couches in the library lounges.  The lack of xuixi—however detrimental to my napping schedule—dramatically increased my productivity and even allowed me to often leave a facility before having the documents I was reading torn out of my hands by an irate archivist (this happened to me a few months back in Dalian). The librarians at Tōyō Bunko will not submit requests for pulls between 11:50 a.m. and 1:00, but you are free to continue using the library and the documents that you have already had pulled during this time. The Diplomatic Archives pull documents every thirty minutes starting at 10:10 a.m., except between 12:10 and 1:30. However, documents usually take about 10 minutes to arrive, so if you plan properly you can simply work through their lunch break.

Apart from the Waseda University Library, which requires a letter of affiliation written by your school librarian (see their website for details), all facilities simply require you to present a valid photo ID (such as a Driver’s License). The process of getting access to a facility never took me more than 10 minutes and after the first visit, the security guards and staff remembered me and were incredibly helpful, even guiding me to sources I might not have otherwise found. (And, incredibly—or sadly, depending on how you look at it—no one asked me if I was married, why I was left-handed, if I was cold, if I was hot, why I was reading about Muslims, how old I was, if I liked Japanese food, how much money I made, or even quizzed me about the reign names and dates of Japanese Emperors in my entire time at Japanese research facilities.)

All facilities, with the exception of the Diplomatic Archives, have up-to-date online catalogues, accessible from anywhere the Internet reaches. Ordering books and documents requires filling out a form with a call number and source name. I never encountered any ambiguities or problems, and when there was a question of whether to pull only one volume or the entirety of a short-run journal, the librarians usually made the call to pull them all for me. I only encountered one case where a document was listed in the database but not available for viewing. It had recently been removed for digitization. An archivist apologized profusely for the terrible inconvenience the archive had caused me (say what??!).  Of all the sources I examined, about a third were digitized. Tōyō Bunko, the Diplomatic Archives and Waseda University Library are the furthest behind in digitization, whereas the National Library was incredibly efficient and definitely a world leader not only in digitization, but also in user/system integration: the seamless transitions will pretty much blow the mind of any first time user.

The Diplomatic Archives was the only research facility that I visited that did not have an online database. Instead, I had a brief discussion with an archivist about my time period and topic, and he pointed me to numerous sources. He then showed me the indexes that would likely be useful for me to look at and even showed me how to fill out the proper request forms. I had my first set of documents within 20 minutes and it was a synch to order them once I knew which indexes would be useful for me.

Something I wish I’d had the foresight to do was to apply for a Diet Library card by mail before my trip (follow the instructions on their website). With this card readers not only have access to the entire catalogue but can also create lists of books and save them. Signing in with your user name and password also allows you to see which books are available to download from outside of the library and which are available to download. With this information, I could have easily made an electronic list of the books I wanted to access when I was at the library, and have already saved the ones that are available from anywhere (but require a user name and password to download). I found that the majority of digitized books and articles I wanted to access were only available from within the library.

When I applied for a grant for this trip I included a large copying budget, knowing that making photocopies and printing digitized sources would be prohibitively expensive. Prices varied between 25-35 cents a page, so being able to spend as much time with the sources gives researchers the opportunity to make good choices about what they want copied. Since I visited the National Archives two years ago, they changed their policy and now allow researchers to photograph documents for free, so I went on a snapping spree and pretty much photographed everything they put in front of me. The Diplomatic Archives also allows researchers to photograph the majority of their collection, but you are required to ask an archivist before you start taking photos.

I would suggest to people on a tight budget to visit the National Archives first because apart from their document collection, they have a rather large collection of Meiji, Taishō and Shōwa era books and journals, some of which are in duplicate at other libraries in Japan. This means that you might be able to photograph books and articles you would otherwise pay to copy. All copies I requested were given to me in hard copy and were copied for me. I usually photograph copies, and store them in my Dropbox in case my house burns down or my luggage ends up in Baku. None of the facilities I visited marked documents with an archival code, leaving it completely up to me to keep track of everything. Luckily, all facilities allow the use of laptops, so keeping track on a spreadsheet made it quite easy to keep on top of my research.

I feel comfortable speaking Japanese, however I would highly recommend to any scholars who think that there might be documents they could use for their project in Japan to attempt a trip. The archives and library facilities are extremely accessible, and your understanding of kanji, along with some frantic hand gesture will get you further than you might think (or, than it would in China). Working in Japan is an extremely pleasant affair. Every time I went to a new facility I had a pang of anxiety, common to those of us who work in China: “Will they let me in? Will they let me see what I came to see? Will I cry today? How many drinks will I need at the end of this day?” In all honesty, every time I walked through the door of a facility in Japan, my anxiety was completely abated, and the facilities provide an incredibly comfortable and quiet work environment.

For anyone with an unlocked cell phone who is spending a short amount of time in Japan, I would also suggest using the B-Mobile visitor SIM card. SIM cards and cell phones are highly regulated in Japan, so, unlike China, you can’t just buy a pre-paid SIM card and pop it in your phone and charge it up whenever you need to. B-Mobile seems to have figured this out, and offers a pre-paid card that provides visitors with a month of data for about $40. You can order the card through their bilingual website.

Kelly Hammond
PhD Candidate
History Department
Georgetown University


National Diet Library (国立国会図書館)
1-10-1 Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Waseda University Library (早稲田大学図書館)
1-6-1 Nishiwasdeda, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo (Main Library is Building #18)

Tōyō Bunko, or The Oriental Library (東洋文庫)
2-28-21 Honkomagome, Bunkyō-ku, Tokyo

Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (外交史料館) (Previously named the Diplomatic Record Office)
1-5-3 Azabudai, Minato, Tokyo

 National Archives of Japan (国立公文書館)
3-2 Kitanomarukoen, Chiyoda, Tokyo

Image: Photo by Kelly Hammond

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  1. Thanks you for this wonderful review! I am now convinced that I need to spend a month or two in Japan.

  2. This is just great! I am impatiently waiting forward to reading the results of your archival research. The Japanese involvement with the Chinese Muslims is one of the most fascinating and overlooked issues in modern history.

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