Stanford’s Hoji Shinbun project digitizes prewar Japanese American newspapers

OLD PUBLICATIONS, NEW ACCESSIBLE PLATFORM — Thanks to Stanford’s Hoji Shinbun Digital Collection, researchers around the world will be able to access a treasure trove of Nikkei history found in more than a dozen community publications. This March 4, 1942 edition of the Nichi Bei Shimbun informed the Japanese American community about the exclusion zones before they were forcibly removed from the West Coast. courtesy of Hoji Shinbun Digital Project

Persons interested in preserving Japanese American history from the late 19th century to 1945 will have the opportunity to do the research, thanks to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Their Hoji Shinbun Digital Collection project is an ambitious effort to digitize all prewar Japanese newspapers in America, as well as other collections. This will make data available to researchers and scholars.

Kaoru “Kay” Ueda, the first-ever curator at Hoover Institution’s Japanese Diaspora Initiative, is overseeing the project. She studies long-distance diaspora (dispersal of people from their native lands) communities in historical archaeology, combining the study of primary source documents and material culture and hopes that her own diaspora experience will help in her role for the initiative.

Ueda is a Kobe, Japan native who came to the United States when she was a 16-year-old high school exchange student. “I’ve been living outside of Japan longer than in Japan,” she said in an e-mail. “The Issei that I met in Spokane left a strong impression on me and ever since I have wanted to bridge American and Japanese societies and cultures. I’m grateful for the opportunity to fulfill my life mission.”

The new JDI curator most recently worked at the International Center for East Asian Archaeology and Cultural History at Boston University. She received a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and French from Kwansei Gakuin University, an MBA from the University of Chicago, a master of liberal arts in anthropology and archaeology from Harvard Extension School, and a Ph.D. in archaeology from Boston University.

Purpose of Initiative
The purpose of the Japanese Diaspora Initiative is “to make the Hoover Institution Library & Archives a leading center for archive-based research and analysis on historical issues regarding Japan in core areas of interest to the institution: war, revolution, and peace,” Ueda explained.

Funded by an anonymous $9 million gift — one of the largest in the Library & Archives’ history — the initiative has begun by focusing on Japan’s modern diaspora, with particular attention to both Japanese Americans and other overseas Japanese communities, especially during the rise and fall of the Empire of Japan, Ueda pointed out.

The project has so far collected, digitized and provided free access to more than half a million pages of rare Japanese newspapers (Hoji Shinbun), Ueda stated. The total number of titles exceeds 60. As an archive, the project’s primary focus is historical newspapers from the initial issues of papers in the late 19th century to 1945.

The Hoji Shinbun Digital Collection is currently the world’s largest online archive of open-access, full-image Japanese American and other overseas Japanese newspapers, Ueda stated. All image content in this collection has enhancements added where possible, rendering the text maximally searchable.

The holdings of each title (newspaper) can also be browsed by date, with each title cross searchable with other titles on the platform. Most publications present a mix of content in Japanese and in English, with formats and the proportionality of Japanese/English often changing as a reflection of shifting business and social circumstances.

The Hoji Shinbun Digital Collection is a bilingual Website, with its content in both English and Japanese, Ueda explained. “Hoji” written as 邦字 means the Japanese language outside Japan.

Among the digitized publications are the Nichi Bei Shimbun, Rafu Shimpo of Los Angeles, Hawaii Hochi and Shin Sekai (New World Sun, a competitor to the Nichi Bei Shimbun in San Francisco), the latter having closed after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Nichi Bei Digitized
Kenji G. Taguma, the editor-in-chief of the Nichi Bei Weekly (which succeeded the Nichi Bei Times, and before that, the Nichi Bei Shimbun) stated that he was “ecstatic” that they digitized the prewar collection.

“That was one of my largest concerns at the end of the Nichi Bei Times run — the safekeeping and digitization of the old newspapers,” Taguma said. “I’m relieved that the collection has been digitized and will be accessible to researchers and scholars across the globe.”

At the Nichi Bei Foundation’s first Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage in 2014, Taguma and others discovered that much of the Nikkei experience on Angel Island was captured in poems published in the Nichi Bei Shimbun translated by San Francisco State University Professor Charles Egan, as well as historian Judy Yung’s research in the same publication.

“Thus, I think a lot of history — like the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony — could be rediscovered in the early newspapers,” Taguma said. “The Nichi Bei Shimbun is considered the most influential Japanese American newspaper before the war, established by Kyutaro Abiko in 1899, with his wife Yona taking over as publisher upon his death in 1936 until 1942.”

Most of the digitized Nichi Bei Shimbun collection is from the Stanford and the University of California, Riverside archives, Taguma added, while Ueda has also found copies in Tokyo University from 1903 to 1906, “which is remarkable. We don’t even have those in the Nichi Bei collection that the last Nichi Bei Times board of directors donated to the Japanese American National Library.”

Other missing Nichi Bei Shimbun editions from the 1930s will be added in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley archives.

The Digitizing Process
Digitization was implemented to preserve old Japanese American newspapers and make them more easily accessed, viewed, and analyzed, Ueda said. “To do so, we scanned original newspapers and microfilms and enhanced the images. We also converted the texts in the images into Optical Character Recognition (OCR) texts, allowing scholars to research the contents of the newspapers. OCR is a process by which software reads a page image and translates it into a text file by recognizing the shapes of the letters.”

Newspapers are ideal candidates for digitization because of their poor-quality paper, typical of publications for daily consumption, the difficulty of opening pages because of their large sizes in fragile papers, and the storage requirements, she noted. The large volume of information contained in the newspapers would be much better handled by using computer-aided searches.

Converting the images into OCR texts is more challenging, particularly the Japanese sections because of the use of kanji, the furigana reading aid, different text directions (vertical and horizontal), and complexity of layouts, Ueda noted. As a result, the accuracy of OCR texts is much higher in English than in Japanese.

Interestingly, historical techniques useful in the past can have unintended consequences when using modern technology. For example, the furigana reading aid, which was meant to help the reader, now makes it challenging to convert into OCR texts and thus more difficult to search keywords in the newspaper articles.

Significance of Project
The significance of this project is multiple, Ueda stated. “First, the Hoji Shinbun Digital Collection has become the repository of Japanese American newspapers: a single location where users can access, view, and search Japanese American newspapers across multiple titles and dates free of charge from anywhere and anytime in the world. This allows researchers and students from Japan, for example, to study Japanese American newspapers more easily without having to travel to one of the small number of libraries that hold these newspapers or microfilms. It gives them equal access to these important research materials, regardless of their funding and geographical locations.”

Many users have been enjoying uncovering their family, business, and community history, she noted out.

“San Francisco is the birthplace of Japanese newspapers and magazines in the continental United States.

We are in the process of showing many of these early San Francisco-based Japanese titles from the late 19th century, providing historical resources to uncover the early Nikkei history.”

An example of titles the project is digitizing is the Agohazushi, a magazine published by a group of Japanese men called Ryōzanpaku in San Francisco, headed by Bunzō “Shakuma” Washizu, Ueda stated.

“The initial publication was in 1895. The Agohazushi, (Jawbreaker), is thought to be the first Japanese humor magazine published in the United States. Washizu later became editor of the Nichi Bei Shimbun and published Zaibei Nihonjin shikan (Historical Review of the Japanese in America) in 1930 before returning to Japan in 1931.

In other examples, the daily life of Nikkei is “vividly portrayed in the newspaper articles and advertisements,” she noted. “I am particularly interested in discovering unheard voices, such as women dressmakers, who significantly contributed to the community and household income. There are many notices announcing sewing competitions and their winners and advertisements for sewing machines.”

The task of acquiring this collection from the Japanese American newspapers is a collaborative project with multiple university libraries, publishers, and archive institutions, she explained. “The Hoover Institution Library & Archives and Stanford University Libraries owned some of the materials but not all.

We borrowed newspapers and microfilms so as to digitize them … We are grateful for the positive relationship with Rafu Shimpo and Hawaii Hochi, both of whom let us borrow their precious microfilms for digitization.”

After the project made initial contact with Michael Komai at the Rafu Shimpo, she recalled, “We borrowed the microfilms from the Rafu Shimpo to digitize the microfilms and returned the films to the Rafu. The copyright holder is still the Rafu, not us.”

The Hoji Shinbun project continues to “seek support and understanding from the Japanese American community in preserving and making these important historical resources available to the public and academic community free of charge.”

For more information, visit https://hojishinbun.hoover.org.

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