The National Archives of Japan

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Author ~ Nicolette Hall
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The National Archives of Japan, Tokyo, Japan.

While recently traveling in Tokyo, I had the opportunity to visit the National Archives of Japan.  Having assisted with the International Directory of National Archives (IDNA) project last year, it was exciting to have a chance to visit one of the institutions that our team had been researching.  While at the archive, I was able to see two exhibitions that were on view, each covering transitional periods in the government, society, and culture of Japan entitled Edo shogunate, the final fight – “Bunmuta” reform at the end of the Edo period and Japan’s Modern History.  


Edo shogunate, the final fight –
“Bunmuta” reform at the end of the Edo period
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Letters and other documents on display as part of the exhibit Edo shogunate, the final fight – “Bunmuta” reform at the end of the Edo period, National Archives of Japan

The first exhibition looked back 150 years to the Emperor Meiji’s consolidation of power through the imperial force’s removal of the shogunate.  This was presented in four sections as a progression of the imperial forces northward through Honshu, the largest island of the Japanese archipelago.  Though the accompanying didactic panels were entirely in Japanese, with the use of Google Translate it was incredibly fascinating to gain even a superficial understanding of this pivotal moment in Japanese history.  The materials presented included official documents, letters, diary entries, architectural drawings, prints, and photographs. Though only 150 years ago, this shift radically altered Japanese society and would be a large stepping stone towards the rapidly approaching changes of Japan’s modernization.  

Japan’s Modern History
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Election Act amendment granting women’s suffrage, 1945. This amendment also lowered the voting age and the age for election to the House of Representatives.  In the 1946 election, 39 female Diet members were elected

The second exhibition focused on major events from the Meiji period (1868-1912) onward.  The exhibition materials on display were selected to bring historical events to life for modern viewers and to show the importance of preserving historical records for future generations.  Didactic panels in this exhibition were presented in both Japanese and English, and provided insight into the historical significance of the articles on display. Some of the artifacts in this exhibition included the Petition for an Elected Assembly of 1874, diagrams and drawings related to the installation of arc lights (an early form of electric street lamp) in Tokyo in 1882, the Sino – Japanese Peace Treaty (Treaty of Shimonoseki) of 1895, the granting of women’s suffrage in 1945, the Treaty of Peace with Japan (the San Francisco Peace Treaty) of 1952, and the Okinawa Reversion Agreement of 1972.  One of the most interesting displays was the side by side juxtaposition of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (February 11, 1889) with the Constitution of Japan (November 3, 1946). One of these documents establishes a form of constitutional monarchy for the Empire of Japan while the other establishes a parliamentary system that changed the role of emperor to a ceremonial position, all in the span of less than 60 years.

It was quite exciting to have the opportunity to visit the National Archive of Japan and see in person one of the institutions that will be a part of the upcoming International Directory of National Archives book.  Having the chance to learn about some of the historical artifacts of Japan held within the archive really enhanced my experiences as I was traveling.  Seeing and learning about the documents presented in both exhibitions provided additional context and put into perspective the historical significance of locations visited in both Tokyo and Osaka.  As a visitor it was also fascinating to see efforts that were made to accommodate and be inclusive to non-Japanese speaking visitors to the archives. While the archives seemed a little off the beaten path for most tourists visiting Tokyo, that added bit of accessibility combined with the kindness and approachability of the staff made for a really enjoyable and educational experience.  Overall, the National Archives of Japan felt like a wonderful example of how national archives work to bring the historical and cultural history of a nation to life for its people.

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