Re-Envisioning Japan is an open-ended recuperative project based on an original collection of tourism and travel, educational, and entertainment ephemera in a wide range of media. Most of the objects in the collection are common-use items; they all document personal experiences, cross-cultural encounters, and changing representations of Japan and its place in the world in the early to mid-20th century. By revealing perceptions of life and landscape in Japan from roughly the turn of the 19th century to the 1970s, they prompt us to rethink still-prevalent assumptions of Japan, particularly pre-WWII Japan, as a place apart, relatively out of synch with a more cosmopolitan and modern Western world that it sought to emulate. This collaborative digital humanities project is housed in the Digital Scholarship Department, River River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester. The collection was started in 2000, and will eventually transition to the University’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.

Please note that this project's first (2013-2016) WordPress iteration at https://dslab.lib.rochester.edu/rej/ and this new Omeka site coexist until we can migrate all content from WordPress to WordPress to Omeka. Use the pink "Old REJ Website" button on the main header menu bar for a shortcut to the original WordPress site.

Project Background

Every October since 1993, with one exception, I have attended Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the annual international silent film festival founded in 1982 in Pordenone, Italy. Japan was not represented during the early years that I attended. Since then the festival has showcased Japanese feature films, animation, and some actualities shot in Japan at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, I have found it impossible to get a palpable sense of early 20th-century Japan to the extent that I have done so for most of Europe and the United States. For example, I can close my eyes and imagine London and New York, and through the experience of a "phantom ride" I can immerse myself in the European countryside. I have always felt a deep sense of loss because I have not been able to experience Japan in a similar way. This website began with a collection meant to help remedy that loss and better understand the life and landscape of that time and space through other material means.

My collection started with postcards, which came up first when I did a blind “Japan” search on online auctions. A short time later, while watching a Japanese detective drama in Pordenone, I recognized the Kobe cityscape from one of my postcards and experienced the distinct and immediate sensation of connecting with the past that tangible material objects make possible. My growing familiarity with the diversity of postcard genres in the early 20th century led to a keener awareness of the active tourist trade and luxury steamship culture that existed in the first few decades of the century, and I turned my attention to collecting travel brochures, steamship menus, maps, and guidebooks. Searches for such artifacts led me to various genres of literature and magazines, usually special issues published in Japan for English-speaking audiences. My increasing understanding of early 20th-century visual culture gained through first-hand, haptic appreciation of individual artifacts, emboldened me to cast my net further to include stereographs and glass slides. I also researched archival amateur travel films shot in Japan and instructional or educational films about Japan. I purchased 16mm, Regular (or Standard) 8mm, and Super 8mm films to add to my collection when possible. The ease with which you can now watch these films on this site thoroughly masks the labor-intensive and time-consuming process of making such access possible (see also  "Technical Details" under "About" on the main menu.)

Each encounter with a new type of used object created another layer in my understanding of Japan in the early to mid-20th century; I have a deeper appreciation of found objects as tangible reminders of individual and personal experiences. As I learned more about the history of inbound tourism in Japan, I broadened my parameters to include the period up to the 1970s, a decade during which the rate of Japanese outbound tourists superseded that of foreigners visiting Japan. This decade also marks my first experience living in Japan, as a college student in the Image Arts Department of Osaka University of Arts. From April 1976 to July 1977, I was assigned to film the life events and landscapes I experienced first-hand.

As is the case with all published work, this website results from my desire to share my research on this rich range of material. This project exemplifies the value of material culture for cross-disciplinary scholarly research and education. I chose a digital platform for the results of my research because its multimedia dimension is best suited to interactive access. A digital platform allows for continual updating, an asset to this project's recuperative nature as image and object-driven scholarship. Such flexibility also allows for further development with access to new technology. 

This online resource represents and curates digital surrogates for the physical objects in the Re-Envisioning Japan collection.  We have prioritized making available the best possible digital surrogate for each object by reiteratively exploring ways to emphasize its materiality. 

The provenance of most of these objects before their acquisition is unknown; identifying, describing, and contextualizing them is continuous. This project is open-ended and, in this sense, a living document. I recently donated the physical collection to the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and Preservation, University of Rochester River Campus Libraries. This will ensure long-term preservation and broader access. 

I believe these traces of Japan's past and the people who used these objects will deepen your understanding of Japan and its place in the 20th-century world, just as they have deepened mine.

The process of identifying and contextualizing the material on this site is ongoing. If you have information about any images you want to share with others, please get in touch with me at the email below. Please credit Re-Envisioning Japan when re-using or citing images and all other content in any capacity. 

Joanne Bernardi

Joanne Bernardi, Ph.D.
Japanese Studies & Visual and Cultural Studies
Department of Modern Languages and Cultures
PO Box 270082
University of Rochester
Rochester NY 14627