Students standing around desks with books and scrolls
Students examining the Japanese sources in the Asia Collection Multi-purpose Room

A special opportunity to see and feel the past through ancient Japanese text became a hands-on learning experience at Hamilton Library for students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures in the College of Arts, Languages & Letters.

Drawing of two people in blue robes with red trim
Particular from the Gaiban yōbo zuga (“Drawings of the Appearance of Foreigners”) depicting a Ryukyuan couple

Undergraduate students in Professor Pier Carlo Tommasi’s “Introduction to Classical Japanese” class examined textual artifacts in the library’s Japan Special Collection—a set of pre- and early-modern materials called kotenseki, to which undergraduate students are seldom granted access. The experience offered students a glimpse into the realm of archival research, and allowed them to gain newfound knowledge about traditional book culture.

“This experience was very special,” said UH Mānoa student Monique DeLara. “Before this semester, I didn’t really have an appreciation for objects even a hundred years old. Witnessing how much care went into handling these books and being able to look through them myself helped me put into perspective how even everyday objects like letters, a journal or textbook are an important peek into how things were done then compared to today or another several centuries (or even decades!) into the future.”

page from a manuscript with Japanese script
Kujiratori (“Whaling”) manuscripts from the Sakamaki/Hawley Collection

Students took a “speed-dating” approach in engaging with the ancient artifacts. Each student viewed a different object for three to five minutes on a cycle, taking notes and observing similarities and differences. When writing down observations, students focused on relevant features, such as the item’s format (book-binding type, print/manuscript), paper quality (color and thickness), writing style and text-image relationship. Students then formulated hypotheses about the possible readership and functions of the textual artifacts.

“Being able to physically touch the pieces was something that I would have probably never had the chance to do unless I was in this class,” said UH Mānoa student Shun Mizuno. “Just knowing that I am in contact with something that has essentially time traveled is a very magical feeling, as well as thinking of the past individuals which have handled these pieces.”

The “kotenseki project” will continue over the next couple of months, and will include the exploration of other important Japanese antiques at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

For more, visit the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures website.