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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Zoom [Registration link available below]
Event date: 
Monday, 8 November, 2021 - 17:30 to 19:00


Children, Calamities, and Crane Conservation in Modern Japan

Historians of children and youth have long acknowledged that one of the unique difficulties of childhood history is finding source material produced by children themselves. In the absence of such materials, historians have relied on adult recollections of childhood, or observations by teachers, parents and others to describe the world inhabited by children. So what happens when historians find children’s voices, writings, drawings and artefacts in the archives? How do we use them? What can they tell us about children’s thoughts, experiences, relationships, beliefs, hopes, and feelings? Importantly, what does the production, preservation, publication, exhibition and circulation of these items reveal about a society and its values?

For historians of modern Japan, the challenge is not about finding children’s writings, but about devising meaningful ways to use them in our research. There is an abundance of material produced by children in modern Japan and significant potential for historians to tap into these archives and shed new light on twentieth century Japan. In this talk, I will discuss how and why I used sources produced by children, together with other material about children, to write my recent book Earthquake Children. I argue that just because children were the youngest and most vulnerable members of society did not mean that they were absent, voiceless, or invisible in the ruins. In the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, children were seen and their voices were heard. Their essays, letters, poems, songs, postcards and drawings were printed in newspapers, displayed in exhibitions, and published in books. Moreover, their voices were documented and utilised extensively by teachers, medical experts, journalists, and eventually government officials. In the second half of my talk, I will focus on my current project, entitled Endangered Icon. Here, I illuminate the pivotal role schoolchildren played in saving Japan’s Red-crowned Crane from the brink of extinction. Using a case study of the Akan Middle School Crane Club and the abundance of writings and materials they produced, I suggest that children can play an important role as agents of conservation with compelling voices to be heard.

Janet Borland is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at the University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on fundamental relationships between people and the natural and built environment. Her first book, Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo (Harvard University Asia Center, 2020), won the 2020 Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities First Book Prize, the 2020 Grace Abbott Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the General History Prize in the 2021 New South Wales Premier’s History Awards. Janet’s second book, Endangered Icon: Japan’s Quest to Save the Red-crowned Crane, is a social, cultural and environmental history covering the twentieth century.