Studying Japanese History at the University of Chicago during the COVID-19 pandemic

By way of introduction, I am Mark Chen, a visiting undergraduate student at Center for Northeast Asian Studies Tohoku University last summer as I was doing research for my history BA thesis as well as a postgraduate seminar paper. I recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in history and Chemistry, and I am moving on to complete an MPhil at Cambridge starting in October. For my graduate career, I am interested in studying the history of science (particularly chemistry) in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Japan as well as Japan’s social history surrounding science and medicine.

This post is about how the COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting research in Japanese studies at UChicago. Like most Japanese universities, the University of Chicago shifted to online learning at the beginning of April, with the closure of campus, including the libraries. For those who study areas such as European history and international history, the disruption to their research could be minimalized by shifting to using widely available online journals, books, and archives. For us who study Japan that mainly rely on printed literature and archival accesses, the closure of the library presented quite an obstacle. The article delivery service from the National Diet Library was also halted as mail from Japan stopped, and it has been obviously impossible to travel to Japan to access sources due to the travel restrictions. Luckily, I was in the final stages of completing my final papers and spent my time in quarantine organizing and analysing my sources. However, professors and graduate students studying Japanese history mostly resorted to using the digital collections of the NDL, the National Archives of Japan, as well as CiNii. Recently, the university library restarted its Scan & Delivery service, and everyone is trying to figure out new ways to do research in the era of the prolonged pandemic.

Normally, UChicago hosts a summer workshop for reading kuzushiji taught by a professor from Center for Northeast Asian Studies Tohoku University. Unfortunately, due to travel restrictions and safety concerns caused by COVID-19, the workshop had to be cancelled this year. However, students, lecturers, and professors of Japanese history and art history have been convening twice a week from the end of June via Zoom to read early modern texts written in kuzushiji. Recently, we have been focussing on texts related to the cholera epidemic in Japan at the end of the Edo period. While we have been busy honing our skills of reading these texts, the emotions of anxiety and hope towards cholera really travel through time via these texts, reflecting parallels in the COVID-19 pandemic in which we currently reside.
(Mark Chen  The University of Chicago)

A scene of the “Reading Kuzushiji Workshop” at the University of Chicago in June 2019 (the author is on the left)