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Workshop report: Re-thinking Japonisme: Digitisation of the V&A’s collection of Japanese illustrated books and researching its formation in the late 19th century

From 20th November to 1st December 2023, the project to digitise the collection of Japanese illustrated books took place at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Titled ‘Re-thinking Japonisme: Digitisation of the V&A’s collection of Japanese illustrated books and researching its formation in the late 19th century’, the project is funded by the International Joint Digital Archiving Center for Japanese Art and Culture (ARC-iJAC) and is a collaborative effort between the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures. Under the guidance of Dr Ryoko Matsuba, Lecturer in Japanese Digital Arts and Humanities and a specialist of prints at the Institute, I participated in the project as one of the research assistants.

The workshop involved digital photography, digital data management, and the cataloguing of illustrated books as well as ukiyo-e woodblock prints in the V&A collection. Every book was photographed from cover to cover in the highest quality possible to ensure clear readability and archived systematically after careful checking. We were introduced to ARC’s book cradle system, which is designed especially for digitising printed books by allowing the books to open safely and evenly for documentation. We came across some extremely delicate books and the cradle helped a lot in keeping the photography process smooth.

A kusazōshi opened and placed evenly on the cradle. This is an example of a colourful inner page.

Among the various books, I found the kusazōshi particularly interesting. They are small and handy in size but rich in content, as they were produced as popular books in the Edo period. Although I was not able to understand the text, I found their way of arranging text around images very flexible and inspiring. Besides, these books usually have an eye-catching cover and one to two beautifully printed inner pages in colour. Dr Matsuba told me they were made to attract more people to buy the books. To my surprise, the embossing technique seen in the large ukiyo-e prints were applied to some of the pages, usually in the details of the characters’ clothes such as the patterns on white areas of garments. This can only be noticed when looking closely, and it creates a challenge for digitisation: how can we show it through photos? In this case, multiple photos are taken in the same position and with different settings. In order to capture such features, we need to use raking light by turning off the lights on one side of the table to create shade that brings out the embossed effects. I think it’s brilliant that not only the content but also the crafts can be shown digitally.

On 30th November, Professor Laura Moretti from Cambridge University conducted a kuzushi-ji workshop at the V&A. She and her students came to our digitisation workshop to see the collections, watch us work and exchange thoughts. They expressed their gratitude to us for digitising these important collections and to the museum for improving their accessibility. This moment reaffirmed the value of digitally archiving print materials. During the process, I realised that the books contain a large amount of information from the past, much of which is preserved in the text. However, there are also a lot of words written in forms such as kuzushi-ji that require expertise to interpret. Thus it is essential to make them visible to a wider audience and each newly available resource may lead to important discoveries in a research field.

I was lucky enough to join a tour of the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art, the permanent gallery of Japanese art at the V&A, with Professor Moretti and her students. The tour was guided by Yamada Masami, curator of the Japanese collections at the V&A and leader of the Digitisation project. According to Masami, the gallery exhibits the craftsmanship and artistic creativity of Japan from the sixth century to the present day with its extraordinary displays of various objects. Yet what we saw was only the tip of the iceberg as the V&A holds over 48,000 objects in its Japanese art collections. For instance, the number of prints displayed in the gallery is limited to no more than 15 at a time, and once a print is replaced, it will not appear in the gallery again for at least 4-8 years to reduce the amount of colour change or fading of the print. While I was assisting Dr Matsuba with the digitisation of the V&A’s ukiyo-e collections, I was impressed by the volume of materials and the quality of preservation. Many of them have never been displayed or published and through this project, they will get the chance to be re-discovered. I am really excited about it.

As an MA student interested in books, I feel very honoured to have the opportunity to learn the best practices for digitising the V&A’s precious collections. I learned that there are over 700 titles in the collection in full and there are ongoing efforts to digitise all of them. As the project evolves, I believe it will present a more and more comprehensive overview of print cultures in late 19th-century Japan. I look forward to contributing to this meaningful project in the future.

Yeeman Lin
MA in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, UEA