The Future of Digital Resources for Shōsōin Studies

I recently received a volume about the Shōsōin collection that contains valuable historiographical and methodological pieces by eminent Shōsōin scholars such as Sakaehara Towao, Yamashita Yumi, Iida Takehiko, Yamaguchi Hideo, and others. The volume is a must read for anyone interested in Shōsōin documents. For me, the most exciting aspect of the volume was the information about current digital projects related to Shōsōin documents. These resources strike me as potentially field-changing ones that will make Shōsōin studies more accessible and also allow for innovative new research.

One of these resources is being designed by a team of researchers including Gotō Makoto, who recently accepted a position at the National Museum of Japanese History, and authored an article in the volume about the project. Gotō had previously helped design the Somoda database. This was an ambitious project that focused on text data to enable restoration (fukugen) of fragments (dankan). Unfortunately, the database has not been updated since 2007, was never fully functional as far as I can tell, and encountered some problems outlined by Gotō in his article. But the future looks bright for this project. Gotō is currently revising it to be based on topic maps. While the technical aspects are beyond my comfort zone, it essentially enables users to visualize the relationship between and number of occurrences of various topics. A more concrete example would be as follows: a researcher could search for a particular text, such as a sutra commentary, and see where it was held and what monks had requested it. This type of complex search would allow researchers to understand textual circulation to write a biography of a sutra in early Japan or to better understand the curriculum for monks and nuns. Similarly, a scholar could find all the times a scribe appeared in documents in a given year. In the future, the project could also link to other resources on the web, such as the text of a given sutra in SAT or to other sources for early Japan such as the Shoku Nihongi.

A second exciting project described in an article in this volume by Adachi Fumio, Suzuki Takuji, and Nitō Atsushi makes super high definition color images of Shōsōin documents available (or more accurately, images of the collotype replicas that the National Museum of Japanese History is producing). Moreover, the software allows some really useful functions. For one, users will be able to put the recto and verso side by side or on top of one another for comparison. Second, users will be able to put documents in order sequentially, thus allowing images that provide restoration (fukugen) of fragments (dankan) in their eighth-century configurations. Third, users can zoom. Unfortunately, as outlined here, the database is only available in the National Museum of Japanese History and printing images is not allowed. More detailed information on the system, including some screen shots can be found here.

Posted in News | Comments Off on The Future of Digital Resources for Shōsōin Studies

New Online Shōsōin Resource via Tokyo Historiographical Institute

The Tokyo Historiographical Institute has added a new resource for using Shōsōin documents to their database. This tool, called the SHOMUS 正倉院文書マルチ支援データベース, provides data from the Shōsōin monjo mokuroku, the key catalog for using Shōsōin documents, in an online and open-access format. The database quite usefully offers links between entries following the connections (setsuzoku) between documents before they were reconfigured by Hoida. It also offers links to images from Dai Nihon komonjo. It is searchable by keyword. The announcement promises that it will expand in the coming months. I noticed that entries include the tantalizing promise of photographic images (satsuei gazō 撮影画像), a field empty in the examples I’ve looked at. Perhaps one day, we will be able to access high quality images of Shōsōin documents online. It doesn’t hurt to dream, right?

Here are some other Japanese language blog posts related to this new resource:

Posted in News | Comments Off on New Online Shōsōin Resource via Tokyo Historiographical Institute


I won’t post every typo I find in my published works on this blog, but I did want to note one unfortunate infelicity regarding a date that was just brought to my attention. In a recent JJRS article, I refer to a 742 project to transcribe one hundred copies of the Scripture on Saving and Protecting Body and Life (Jiuhu shenming jing 救護身命經), a text I have translated elsewhere. This is actually a 748 project and is a topic I explore in detail in my dissertation, where I get the date right. I apologize for any confusion this incorrect citation in JJRS may cause future researchers.

Posted in News | Comments Off on Erratum

Ceremony for Opening Shōsōin

Here’s a short video clip recording part of the ceremony related to opening the Shōsōin in preparation for this year’s exhibition:

More on the exhibition itself, can be found here.

Posted in News | Comments Off on Ceremony for Opening Shōsōin

New Article in Religion Compass

The new article on Buddhist manuscript cultures in premodern Japan has been published in Religion Compass.

Please contact me if you can’t access it and I can send you a copy.

Posted in News | Comments Off on New Article in Religion Compass

Article and updates

I am in the process of writing an article on Buddhist manuscript cultures in early and medieval Japan. Part of the essay will introduce recent research on the Shōsōin as well as approaches to Buddhist manuscripts more generally. Most significantly for this page, the research for this project has led me to decide to add more entries to the glossary, an effort I started today. Look for more entries in the coming weeks. I will link to the article when it is published.

Posted in News | Comments Off on Article and updates

Color photos of Shōsōin documents

The web page for the Shōsōin Office 正倉院事務所, which has for some number of years included images of Shōsōin treasures, has also begun to add a limited number of color images of Shōsōin documents. I first learned of this from the Blog for the Shōsōin monjo Kenkyūkai 正倉院文書研究会, which is the best place for news on Shōsōin documents. At present, the Shōsōin Office 正倉院事務所 only has select images of the Seishū 正集. While I hope that one day we will have color images online of complete scrolls from all six collections, there are a few gems included here. The scroll that caught my eye is Seishū 7, which includes documents in the hands of famous monks such as Rōben 良弁 and Dōkyō 道鏡. For me, these documents humanize these monks, particularly for figures such as Dōkyō, who have often been demonized in later historical narratives. These sources show them as figures borrowing texts and commissioning transcription projects and in doing so provide a perspective into their scholastic and devotional lives. And while I’m never convinced that we can truly see the character of someone solely through his hand, viewing Dōkyō’s writing instantly makes him real. In part, this is the magic of the Shōsōin documents; they provide a more direct window–or at the very least a radically different vantage point–into the period compared with officially commissioned and heavily edited national chronicles and perhaps more subtly colored collections of Buddhist narrative tales, the standard sources for Nara history.

To see these photographs, click on 書蹟・地図 in the right hand menu of the Shōsōin Office 正倉院事務所‘s web page under 用途. Then change the settings to allow one hundred entries at a time. The Seishū 正集 scrolls begin about halfway down the page. Enjoy!

Posted in News | Tagged , | Comments Off on Color photos of Shōsōin documents

Yamamoto Yukio’s Recent Research on Genbō

In this blog, I plan to occasionally introduce (relatively) recent Japanese articles related to Shōsōin documents. I’d like to start this series with a pair of articles on the monk Genbō 玄昉 (d. 746).

Genbō is one of the most famous monks of the Nara period. Amongst his many accomplishments, he imported thousands of scrolls of texts from China to Japan, a fact that is mentioned in his obituary in the Shoku Nihongi 続日本紀. A series of two articles (citation below) by Yamamoto Yukio have recently shed light on the precise nature of the texts imported by Genbō. The first article outlines the standards Genbō used in selecting scripture to import. According to Yamamoto, Genbō was fairly discriminate in choosing texts; he brought back works that corresponded to his particular doctrinal interests.

The second article provides a chart listing over 600 titles imported by Genbō alongside the titles of texts in the Kaiyuan Shijiao lu 開元釋教錄. Since many of Genbō’s manuscripts were used as exemplars for copying the 5/1 canon, it seems that it would be possible to combine the Shōsōin documents used by Yamamoto with 5/1 scrolls in the Shōgozō to look at copies that would have been based on Genbō’s manuscripts. While it is well-known that Nara period manuscripts were copied off recently imported continental exemplars, the connection to Genbō would likely provide scholars with a more precise knowledge of when and where these Chinese texts came from.

Yamamoto Yukio 山本幸男.  2006. “Genbō shōrai kyōten to ‘gogatsu tsuitachi kyō’ no shosha (jō) 玄昉将来経典と「五月一日経」の書写(上).” Sōai daigaku kenkyū ronshū 相愛大学研究論集 22: 322-291.

———. 2007. “Genbō shōrai kyōten to ‘gogatsu tsuitachi kyō’ no shosha (ge) 玄昉将来経典と「五月一日経」の書写(下).” Sōai daigaku kenkyū ronshū 相愛大学研究論集22: 226-177.


Posted in News | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

On Trash and Treasures: Thoughts on “Global Archivalities: A conceptual workshop”

Today, I was fortunate to participate in the inaugural workshop of an exciting new project on global archivalities. The aim of the project, as I understand it, is to consider the meanings and uses of archives from cross-cultural comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives. At the workshop, presenters pointed out the need to reassess our assumptions that archives center around knowledge. Others suggested that we should look beyond imperial centers to consider the fringes of written and archival cultures. Some participants emphasized practices that run counter to the archival instinct such as the destruction of documents and trusting speech over writing. Collectively, we pondered the very meaning of an archive and the existence of “non-archival archives”: collections of documents that were not originally designed for archival purposes.

More than anything, participants returned repeatedly to the processes through which archives are created and preserved. These processes include both conscious and unconscious acts performed by a range of people including scribes, bureaucrats, antiquarians, and, of course, archivists. This emphasis on processes adds a dynamic and human element to archives that moves beyond viewing them as stable and static spaces. The Shōsōin collection (which, at the very least, eventually became something resembling an archive) fits in well with the broader theoretical discussions raised by the workshop.

The Shōsōin corpus–ten-thousand documents rediscovered in an imperial treasure house in the eighteenth century–was created through a series of processes that can be understood as continued reassessments of trash and treasure. Many of the documents contain records on both sides. What is now the verso of these documents was formerly recycled paper including bits of census records, tax registers, and other records from the scriptorium. These recyclables were cut apart and reassembled by scriptorium administrators to create new scrolls for record keeping at the sutra copying bureau. When the documents found their way into the Shōsōin, they had been reassembled as a collection of scrolls to meet the administrative needs of scriptorium officials. Their primary purpose at this stage, therefore, was administering a particular institution.

Things changed, as they often do, in the nineteenth century, when the documents were rediscovered and became an entirely new archive altogether. For nineteenth-century nativist antiquarians, such as Hoida Tadatomo, the Shōsōin documents were valuable less as a record of a scriptorium than as a collection of seals and documents related to the eighth-century bureaucracy. Here, what was once the trash of the sutra copying bureau became treasure in the eyes of Hoida and his colleagues. Hoida’s reassembling of the documents through peeling apart and pasting pieces together reshaped the physical contents of the archive, but his efforts also altered its perceived value and shaped research agendas for more than a century.

For most of the history of modern Shōsōin studies, scholars have pored over what had once been a recycled trash heap in search of census and tax data in a process that Sakaehara Towao has likened to “treasure hunting”: a felicitous phrase referring to the search for gems on the backs of now neglected scriptorium documents. Only in the last few decades have scholars in Japan begun to focus on the records from the Office of Sutra Transcription. While this new generation of scholars has recognized the value of census records and tax registers, they have also realized that the only reason these documents exist is because they were once thrown away and then reused. Attention now has turned largely to reassembling the documents into the form that existed before Hoida discovered them: namely, registers from a scripture copying bureau.

As I try to make sense of the archival processes that made the Shōsōin corpus a systematized and consciously organized collection, I envision a dialect between trash and treasure.  The archive was created through a process of rejection and reclamation. Some documents were preserved precisely because they were trash; or perhaps more accurately, they remain because they landed in a particular trash heap as opposed to others. These pieces of trash have outlasted many classic religious and literary works now lost forever to scholars. Other documents, now treasured by a new generation of historians, were viewed as rubble by the first modern archivists in charge of the Shōsōin materials. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure is another man’s trash and so on and so on. This has been the process that led to the creation of the Shōsōin corpus.

Posted in News | Tagged , , | Comments Off on On Trash and Treasures: Thoughts on “Global Archivalities: A conceptual workshop”

First Encounters

I began studying Shōsōin documents 正倉院文書 for my dissertation research on sutra copying in early Japan (roughly seventh through ninth centuries). Although I had frequently heard of an important building known as the Shōsōin, I knew nothing of its collection of documents when I first decided to research sutra transcription. I had initially been attracted to the rich narrative tales in the Nihon ryōiki 日本霊異記 as well as continental sources as well as the dedicatory prayers (ganmon 願文) inscribed in the colophons of eighth-century sutra manuscripts. As I began to read the Japanese language scholarship on sutra transcription in the Nara period (710-784), I soon realized that the vast majority of work dealt with sources known as Shōsōin documents. At first, I was thrilled that there were thousands of hand-written documents related to an eighth-century scriptorium, which had received virtually no attention in English. The sources seemed like an untapped gold mine filled with potential.

And to some extent they were, but these documents also posed numerous problems. For one, I soon learned that the published print editions in Dai Nihon komonjo were riddled with errors. At first, I thought these problems related to transcription and dating errors would be easily overcome through careful consultation of the original documents, but these issues were really the least of my worries. The Dai Nihon komonjo series was not simply inaccurate, but it actually radically rearranged the documents into a new order that broke up what were once single documents into several pieces scattered about the collection. Looking at reproductions of the originals didn’t help either; these documents had also been cut apart and pieced together on at least two occasions. The first was in the Nara period, when many documents were cut apart, flipped over, and reassembled as new scrolls to be written on the verso. More recently, the documents were cut apart and reassembled again into new scrolls based on the research interests of modern scholars intent on collecting seals and gathering documents from the various bureaus of the eighth-century government. In rearranging these scrolls in this way, these modern scholars disrupted the order of the documents as they had been assembled at the state-sponsored scriptorium and stored in at the Shōsōin for over one thousand years.

As I was soon informed by Japanese scholars, Shōsōin research required highly specialized training in how to read and piece together these documents together to return them to their premodern configuration. In many ways, it is a mutli-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that is only being pieced together bit by bit. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to study with two leading scholars in the field, Sakaehara Towao at Osaka City University and Miyazaki Kenji at Ōtani University. Both scholars provided me with rigorous training in using these important sources. The purpose of this web page is to introduce some of what I learned to help facilitate future English language research on the Shōsōin.

In this space, I plan to periodically write about Shōsōin research. I will introduce recent Japanese language scholarship, discuss individual documents, and provide updates with news related to the Shōsōin and the study of early Japan. I look forward to your comments.


Posted in News | Tagged , , | Comments Off on First Encounters