Workshop report – Re-thinking Japonisme: Digitisation of the V&A’s Collection of Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints and Illustrated Books and Researching Its Formation in the Late 19th Century

Thanks to the collaboration between the V&A, the Art Research Center at Ritsumeikan University (ARC) and the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC), a workshop as part of the project “Re-thinking Japonisme: Digitisation of the V&A’s Collection of Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints and Illustrated Books and Researching Its Formation in the Late 19th Century” was carried out from 27th November to 2nd December 2022 in the V&A Museum. The project was led by Yamada Masami, curator of the Japanese collections at the V&A Museum and Dr. Ryoko Matsuba, Lecturer in Digital Japanese Art History and a specialist of prints at the Sainsbury Institute, and assisted by other institute staff as well as former and present UEA students. Within a week, the project digitised seventy-nine volumes of ehon while providing hands-on training in digitisation by going through the process from pre-photography installation, object documentation to digital archiving of images.

Former student of MA interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, Emma Kiey, works on photographing a painting manual from the Edo period.

The first day started off with installations of photography equipment. Setting up the workstation might sound simple, but it is a process that requires a high level of attention to detail and it is crucial to produce high-quality images. Each workstation is covered carefully with large black cloths in order to block external sources of light and prevent reflections. Then, we find the orientation of top, bottom, left and right on the camera to check the camera is centred, not angled. Next, the white balance is checked and adjusted by positioning the lights placed on four corners of the table. Minor changes in positions or the angles of the lights drastically affect the lighting balance, so this process must be done through trial and error by moving the angles of the lights little by little. Once the workstation is set up, the photographer places a book on the cradle and photographs each page, including the front and back covers. The other member checks the digital images against the originals, to be certain that no pages have been omitted or inadvertently cropped and that pictures are in focus without reflection. Finally, pictures are systematically numbered according to the museum’s registration numbers. 

ARC’s book cradle system provides support to digitise Japanese rare books by allowing the books to open safely and evenly for documentation.

As we have become increasingly reliant on digital materials in our daily lives, it is vital to build digital platforms for museums and other institutions. Participating in this research project, I rediscovered the importance of creating digital resources for developing a research field. In my previous experience of researching 20th century magazines, I often encountered problems accessing resources via online databases, and had to make several visits to a specific library in order to access original materials. Handling actual objects is an important and essential part of research, yet the increasing availability of digital materials not only serves to reduce the need to handle fragile objects but also enhances access to materials and research efficiency. To support further scholarship in Japanese arts and culture, it is crucial that materials are digitised, thereby allowing more people to access information without making constant visits to institutions.

As an MA student interested in illustrated books, it was an honourable opportunity to be able to work with such important works from the 19th century at the V&A. The collection included various types of ehon from illustrated manuals that introduced animals and plants to fictions and works of drama. There were also many series of popular Edo literary genres, such as gōkan, which had illustrations with small text filled in the blank spaces of the illustrations. In a lot of stories, numerous characters that looked similar from one another appeared, but in order to help readers distinguish them, I noticed that illustrators often left marks on their clothing, which usually takes the form of a circle containing a letter from their names. Personally, a surprising discovery was that the speech bubbles, such as the ones that are used in illustrated books and manga today, had already appeared in ehon from this period. In one of the books, there was a scene where a man was falling asleep. The upper part of the page was another illustration, but inside a speech bubble. Without an explanation, readers could assume that the illustrations drawn inside the bubble are what the man was seeing in his dream, as the pointy end of the bubble was directed towards the man. Despite being more than a century back from today, it is fascinating that a similar drawing technique is employed to indicate the inner logic of pictures.

An illustration of gōkan from the V&A collection

While photographing rare book collections at the museum was demanding work, the project was educational and practical, and provided a great opportunity to experience digitising 2D objects for future research. For myself, participating in the project for digitisation of ehon at the V&A was an opportunity that I had never imagined gaining before entering the MA Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies programme at the University of East Anglia, so I would like to thank everyone who was involved in this project. Working in a museum was a rare and stimulating experience for me, and I hope this project served as some support for enhancing digital access for the collections at the V&A, and would allow further research on Japanese illustrated books in the future.

From left: Marjolein de Raat (V&A), Emma Kiey (former student, MA Interdisciplinary Japanese studies, UEA), Yuhan Ji (Sainsbury Intitute), Ryoko Matsuba (Sainsbury Institute), Masami Yamada (V&A), Michie Nakamura (MA Interdisciplinary Japanese studies, UEA)

Michie Nakamura
Current student of MA Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, UEA