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Japanese Censorship Collection at the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Eiichi Ito, Japanese Reference Specialist, Asian Division.)

The Library of Congress recently launched the Japanese Censorship Collection, an online archive comprising more than one thousand marked-up copies of government-censored monographs and galley proofs from prewar Japan. All the digitized materials in this collection are currently available for viewing onsite, with the collection’s public domain materials also accessible offsite. The Library digitized the Japanese Censorship Collection in collaboration with Japan’s National Diet Library, which recognized the collection’s unique value as a historical resource. The National Diet Library has also made the collection available for viewing in Japan, with similar arrangements for onsite and offsite access. At present, 247 titles are available on the Library of Congress website for offsite viewing, but this number will continue to grow as more titles enter the public domain.

Government censorship in Japan has a long history that can be traced back to the Edo period (1600-1868). The samurai-led government ruled by the shogun, or supreme military leader, banned Christian publications, both Western and Japanese, early in the 17th century. Beginning in the 18th century it sought to stifle subversive or salacious works by ordering publishers’ and booksellers’ guilds in Edo (now Tokyo) and Osaka to self-censor content prior to publication. In modern Japan, conventionally dated from the restoration of imperial rule in 1868, the government practiced censorship to varying degrees throughout the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and early Showa (1926-1989) periods. Censors exercised a particularly heavy hand during the wartime years, from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the end of World War II in 1945. Censorship also continued after the war during the US-led Allied Occupation (1945–1952), when authorities regularly censored the press to remove content deemed politically or morally subversive, such as the glorification of militarism, advocacy of communist ideology, or pornography.

The Japanese Censorship Collection features copies of fiction and non-fiction works submitted by publishers for review by bureaucrats in the Home Ministry. This ministry was among the most powerful government entities in prewar Japan. Not only was it tasked with censoring publications, it also held jurisdiction over police, infrastructure, elections, public health, and religious affairs. The Library’s collection also includes publications and other materials confiscated by the ministry and local authorities for censor review.

The majority of the items in the collection were produced between 1923, when the Home Ministry’s building in Tokyo burned down in the Great Kanto Earthquake, and 1945, when the imperial Japanese government’s surrender marked the end of World War II. Following Japan’s defeat, the ministry’s censorship library was seized by the Allied Forces and sent to the Washington Document Center (WDC) in the United States. Afterwards it was transferred to the Library of Congress, along with a massive number of books and other materials confiscated from other official institutions like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japanese Imperial Army, and the South Manchurian Railway Company.

Prior to World War II, censorship prevailed with the official aim of protecting peace and order (annei 安寧) in society from subversive ideologies, and guarding traditional customs and mores (fuzoku 風俗) from obscenity. Toward these ends, censors suppressed (kinshi 禁止), deleted (sakujo 削除) or revised (kaitei 改訂) publications that they deemed a threat to social and political stability. Common targets included works that espoused socialist ideologies or contained sexual themes, but many ultra-nationalist groups, especially those promoting anti-government activities, drew the attention of the censors’ red pen as well. Many of the materials in this collection were ultimately banned from publication and distribution. Such decisions are often clearly indicated by the censors’ hand-written comments and Home Ministry seals stamped directly on copies of the offending books.

Below are some examples of a censor’s marks and comments from an edition of “Kanikosen” [“The Crab Cannery Ship”] a novel by Takiji Kobayashi (1903–1933), the most famous author of the proletarian literature movement in Japan. In 1929, Kobayashi wrote a pessimistic story, which ends when a strike by workers aboard a factory ship is suppressed by the Imperial Navy. As a result of Kobayashi’s involvement with Communist groups, he was arrested by undercover police on February 20, 1933, tortured during interrogation, and died the same day.

The copy of “Kanikosen” under censor review shown here is a revised edition with a publication date of January 30, 1930. The censor indicated that concerns over the book’s content related to the protection of public peace and order (annei 安寧). On the cover, the censor’s handwritten comments read: “The word ‘His Majesty the Emperor’ on page 21, ‘gift’ on page 123, and other words on the following page should be deleted. A decision made by the officer on February 8, 1930.” In these passages, the workers in the story discuss the emperor with disdain and disrespect, which the censors deemed inappropriate.

Cover of the censored copy of “Kanikosen” [“The Crab Cannery Ship”]. Kobayashi, T. (1929). “Kanikosen” (Revised ed.). Tokyo: Senkisha, image 3 (Japanese Censorship Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).

The text underlined in red by the censor reads: “His Majesty the Emperor’s up above the clouds, so he can do whatever he likes and it doesn’t hurt us, but Asa [the ship manager] is here with us and better not think he can do the same.” The government censor ordered deletion of “His Majesty the Emperor”. “Kanikosen” [“The Crab Cannery Ship”]. Kobayashi, T. (1929). “Kanikoosen” (Revised ed.). Tokyo: Senkisha, image 29 (Japanese Censorship Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).

 

The text underlined in red by the censor reads: “Even those fishermen, who may just be ordinary workers, were driven to their wits’ end. They finally all understood from this experience who their enemies were and that those enemies were complicit in exploiting workers. Every year, as the crab fishing season came to an end, it was customary to produce cans of crabmeat to be sent to the Emperor. However, no effort was ever made for the traditional purification process when preparing the imperial gift. When this happened in the past, the fishermen had thought the manager was committing an awful act—but this time they felt completely different.” “Kanikosen” [“The Crab Cannery Ship”]. Kobayashi, T. (1929). “Kanikosen” (Revised ed.). Tokyo: Senkisha, image 131 (Japanese Censorship Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).

The text underlined in red by the censor reads: “‘This canned crab is made out of our real blood and sweat. Heh, I am sure it is awfully tasty. I hope he [the emperor] gets a stomachache after eating it all.’ All the workers prepared the cans with that same feeling. ‘Why don’t we put gravel in them—we don’t care!’” “Kanikoosen” [“The Crab Cannery Ship”]. Kobayashi, T. (1929). “Kanikosen” (Revised ed.). Tokyo: Senkisha, image 132 (Japanese Censorship Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).


The collection also contains a fairly large number of translations of Soviet publications. These publications were banned in order to “protect public peace and order” (annei kinshi 安寧禁止). “Roshia daikakumeishi” [“A history of the great Russian Revolution] is one of many works in this category.

Communist International. (1929). “Roshia daikakumeishi” (Isukurakaku Henshūbu Trans.). Tokyo: Kumaki Kichigorō , image 1(Japanese Censorship Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).

Front cover of Ihara, S. (1686). “Eiri kōshoku ichidai onna” [“The life of an amorous woman, illustrated”]. Tokyo: Manazuru Shoin, image 1 of volume 2 (Japanese Censorship Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).

The censor has penciled in a light red circle around the lovers in the middle of the page, indicating the offending item in this illustration. Ihara, S. (1686). “Eiri kōshoku ichidaionna” [“The life of an amorous woman, illustrated”]. Tokyo: Manazuru Shoin, image 22 of volume 2 (Japanese Censorship Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).


A 1927 illustrated edition of “Koshoku ichidai onna” [“The Life of an Amorous Woman”], is a novel by Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) which is now considered a classic of the Edo period vernacular literature, did not escape government censorship. This copy is an example of a work banned for obscenity, as indicated by the white stamp with “manners and mores” (fuzoku 風俗) in red text in the upper right and the Home Ministry’s seal bearing the word “banned” (kinshi禁止) rubber-stamped in blue on the middle left of the cover.

These marked-up copies of more than 1,000 works, originally from the Home Ministry’s library, reveal traces of the otherwise hidden censorship process through marginal notes, stamps, penciled lines, and commentary inscribed by the censors’ own hands. Each of these books are therefore uniquely different from all other existing copies and editions of the same titles in Japan and elsewhere, making this collection a rich archive for the historical study of censorship.

Further reading:

Abel, J. E. (2012). “Redacted: the archives of censorship in transwar Japan.” Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hutchinson, R. (Ed.). (2013). “Negotiating censorship in modern Japan.” Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.
Kasza, G. J. (1988). “The state and the mass media in Japan, 1918-1945.” Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kushner, B. (2006). “The thought war: Japanese imperial propaganda.” Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Mitchell, R. H. (1983). “Censorship in imperial Japan.” Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

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