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Mapping Imperial Japanese History through the B-Collection

(The following is a post by Chelsea Hudson, Junior Fellow, Asian Division, Summer 2018.)

The process of inventorying and cataloging the hundreds of thousands of items scattered across Library archives is in itself an exercise in reconstructing history. Each book or journal records the anonymous hands that have censored its text, drawn in its margins, or repaired its fraying edges. Over the past summer, I worked with librarians and library technicians in the Asian Division to assist in conducting a physical inventory of the “B-collection,” a subset of the Japanese Collection with a long and fragmented history of its own. Our work aims to make the collection more accessible to scholars across the world by updating and creating online holding records, highlighting rare and unique items, and mapping geographic and topical connections between the materials.

Many materials in the B-collection are difficult to locate outside of Japan, such as the popular postwar girls’ magazine “Himawari” (“Sunflower”). Pictured is the February 1950 issue.

The B-collection contains a broad mass of serial publications spanning many aspects of life under the Japanese empire (1868–1945) and the Allied Occupation (1945–1952). Most of the materials—roughly 3,800 titles, over 40,000 bound volumes, and anywhere from 45,000–75,000 individual issues—arrived at the Library between 1945 and 1950 as part of a mass seizure of documents from occupied Japan by the U.S. military. While Occupation officials focused on government reports, censored documents, and any materials thought to be promoting imperial propaganda, they were also indiscriminate in gathering academic and popular media, shipping hundreds of thousands of items in mail sacks to be distributed to the Library of Congress and the U.S. National Archives. After being processed through the Washington Document Center (WDC)—an agency established under the Department of War to seize documents from East Asia until the mid-1940s—an estimated 300,000 items were transferred to what is now the Adams Building, where a team of librarians and graduate students worked to sort and catalog them.

While many items in the B-collection bear stamps, labels, and notations from the time they were seized from Japan and transferred to the United States, some marks are less than official. Pictured here is a bored soldier or archivist’s doodle of an outraged ostrich, drawn in the inside cover of “Jiji eigo nenkan” (“Current English Yearbook”), published 1941.

Over the following decades, additional titles were registered into the archive as personal donations or transfers from other institutions, while copies of some titles were repatriated to Japan, microfilmed, or distributed to university libraries. What remained became the B-collection, a plain provisional designation for a deep and valuable archive. Asian Division staff and volunteers have made several attempts to map the B-collection over the past three decades by examining online records and physical card catalogs, but this current project is the first physical inventory of the collection since the arrival of the WDC materials at the Library in the late 1940s.

The B-collection includes serials published within Japan, the peripheral islands of Hokkaido and Okinawa, and throughout the former Japanese empire, including Sakhalin, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the puppet state of Manchukuo in what is now northeast China. In terms of content, the materials encompass everything from government statistical reports to children’s magazines, distinguished anthropological journals to university entrance exam guides, popular science monthlies to haiku collections, and tourist guidebooks to Japanese-American directories. Here we can see not only the emotional process of constructing an empire—travel guides marketing the colonies to Japanese readers as new homes, yearbooks connecting colonial communities, and academic journals linking the history and arts of Japan to the rest of East Asia—but also the mundane machinery powering the imperial project, such as journals focusing on highway development, electric and agricultural company publications, and government bulletins outlining everything from the design of city buses to the buttons on postal workers’ winter coats.

The August 1917 issue of “Window Times,” a monthly magazine focusing on the art of advertising, is a particularly unique and beautifully-printed example of the rarest items in the collection. The Library is the only institution known to hold a copy outside of Japan.

However, the B-collection is wound through with a countercultural thread: Socialist newsletters, critical academic and political journals, materials in Esperanto, and numerous independently-published literary magazines. Among these is the eccentric “Imozuru” (“Potato Vines”), a small monthly magazine edited by the Japanese literary scholar and bibliophile Saitō Shōzō (1887–1961). As a twist on the official publishing and administrative seals printed on academic journals and government publications, “Imozuru” featured a different home-grown potato-stamp seal on the back page of each issue.

Left, a “top secret” (極秘, “gokuhi”) seal from the front cover of “Dai Tōa Sensō o meguru kakkoku no dōkō” (“Trends concerning the Asia-Pacific War in Various Countries”), a Foreign Ministry publication; right, a publisher’s seal on the back cover of the July 1925 issue of “Imozuru” (“Potato Vines”).

While some independent magazines ran throughout the Taisho (1912–1926) and Showa (1926–1989) periods, surviving into the postwar years, others faced government pressure or censorship. Many journals covering aspects of Socialism or Soviet culture abandoned their sympathetic stance toward these topics by the end of the 1930s, while magazines infringing on what the Japanese Home Ministry termed politically or socially-subversive content—such as the theatrical journal “Teatoro” (“La Teatro”)—were forced to cancel circulation entirely. That several of these magazines slowly resumed publication or re-adopted their critical viewpoints following the end of the war is a testament to the resilience of Japanese print culture.

Front cover of the first postwar issue of “Teatoro” (“La Teatro”), October 1, 1946.

One of the most valuable finds we have made while working on the inventory comes from the pages of the New Year 1946 issue of “Shukan Shin Nippon” (“New Japan Weekly”), an offshoot of a venerable magazine that slowly lost its color pages, shrank its margins, and adopted thinner, cheaper pages as the increasingly desperate war struggle decimated the Japanese national economy. This issue, published during the tenuous early months of the Allied Occupation of Japan, features a poem by Shigeji Tsuboi (1897–1975), a prominent figure in the Japanese proletarian movement and in modern Japanese poetry as a whole.

Shigeji Tsuboi, “Mon” (“The Gate”), in “Shukan Shin Nippon” (“New Japan Weekly”), January 1, 1946.

Despite its historical significance, the poem, entitled “Mon” (“The Gate”), has never been formally translated into English. Tsuboi, a devoted Marxist who had been censored, arrested, and imprisoned during the 1930s for his deviant political views, expressed the fear, exhaustion, and tentative hope lingering on the threshold of the “great, cruel” gate astride the end of war. As he pressed his readers to remember in the excerpt I have translated below, all members of Japanese society faced the thankless but crucial task of moving on from empire and building their ruined society anew:

The gate is dark and cold and damp as a tunnel

When you pass through the gate

No banners will wave

No flowers will be strewn

No singing voices will rise

Alas, even so

You must

You must pass through the gate.

The more recent materials in the B-collection—the women and girls’ magazines, political journals, and hobby newsletters that came to the Library between the early 1950s and 1980s—illustrate the ways in which members of Japanese society developed a new sense of normalcy while internalizing, ignoring, or confronting the past.

Over the past ten weeks, we have only scratched the surface of what the B-collection holds. In a survey of roughly three hundred titles, eighty percent had inaccurate or incomplete holding records (the Library’s internal records of how many issues are held and where they are kept in the stacks, among other information). Another twenty-five titles—including valuable government reports and complete journal series—had no holding records at all. Reflecting on what we have accomplished—and what there is left to do—I am deeply grateful and happy to have assisted the Asian Division in beginning this project, and I look forward to watching it further unfold in the future. In order to assist new volunteers with the invaluable work of cataloging the collection, we have developed a workflow guide documenting both the history of the archive and the inventory process, while additional plans are in place to create a comprehensive research guide for visiting researchers. Together with the Gordon W. Prange Collection at the University of Maryland, the largest archive of Japanese print materials published during the early Occupation period, the Library can serve both the academic community and the public with the most comprehensive collections of materials documenting life under and after the Japanese empire—and the individual histories, tangled as they are, of the materials themselves.

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