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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies


Transcription project: Tackling Pandemics in Early Modern Japan

In light of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis and the many uncertainties surrounding international travels for the months to come, the Seventh Summer School in Japanese Early Modern Palaeography has been postponed to August 2021. It was by no means an easy decision, but our priority is the safety and wellbeing of all the participants. 

Despite this decision, we intend to continue our sustained efforts to foster engagement with early modern sources by launching the transcription project titled “Tackling Pandemics in Early Modern Japan”. 

Organized in collaboration with Professor Hashimoto Yuta (National Museum of Japanese History) and using the Artificial Intelligence platform Minna de honkoku みんなで翻刻, the project aims at transcribing a conspicuous number of early modern books and ephemera dealing with smallpox, cholera, and measles. The transcriptions will be disseminated publicly once the project is concluded and the hope is that they will inspire more research on pandemics in early modern Japan.

For more information visit our webpage

The project runs from 1st June to 31st October, 2020, using the dedicated website (requires login) created by Professor Hashimoto. 

We would like to thank the generosity of our sponsor, Jonathan Hill Bookseller. 

Why this project now?

As the current Covid-19 pandemic has shown, human beings have been confronted with devastating pandemics throughout the centuries. Reading about how people dealt with the horror and the trauma caused by pandemics in the past can help finding ways to tackle similar challenges in the 21st century. The burgeoning printing industry of early modern Japan gave life to an impressive amount of books and ephemera that talk about different epidemics, including measles, smallpox and cholera. Yet, most of these materials are not available in transcription and are therefore accessible to a few specialists who can read the Japanese early modern cursive hand. This project trains a young generation of scholars to decode, read, and analyse such materials. It also makes resources in transcription available to students and scholars who have no training in palaeography. 

Exploring the potential of artificial intelligence 

Thanks to the collaboration with Professor Hashimoto Yuta, the project will reflect critically on the use of artificial intelligence as a tool to assist in the study of palaeographic skills needed to read Japanese early modern materials. At the same time, the data created by the project will be employed to further enhance the effectiveness of artificial intelligence. 

Informing our undergraduate and graduate teaching

Some of the materials transcribed as part of the project will be used to teach classical Japanese to our final-year BA students and MPhil students (paper J14, Advanced Classical Japanese). In Michaelmas Term the students will be asked to translate selected materials and to write on the importance of these texts within their context and beyond. 

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