Learning Kuzushiji and the Preservation of Historical Materials at Tohoku University

My name is Berfu Şengün, and I am a second-year master’s student at Université Paris Cité
and a PhD student at Universität Zürich, majoring in Japanese Studies with a focus on
premodern Japanese literature. My research project deals with the double-voicedness of
Murasaki Shikibu and analyses heteroglossia in The Tale of Genji. Currently, I am studying at
Tohoku University’s IPLA program as an exchange student for a year.

Last year, I got acquainted with Professor ARATAKE Kenichiro, an early modern Japanese
history specialist, at the Bungo-bun Project seminar. At the time, I was a curious beginner
who had only recently gotten familiar with kuzushiji and could not stop herself from asking
questions. I was particularly interested in how kuzushiji should be taught to international
students and what teaching methods and materials should be used. After answering my
question, Professor Aratake invited me to his kuzushiji class for the following year.

Luckily, the travel restrictions eased, and I could finally enter Japan. Last semester, I attended
Professor Aratake’s Introduction to Kuzushiji class, where we learned how to read deformed
kana and kanji characters written by hand, using texts from the Edo period. Since my
research is based on the Heian period, I had hardly any experience working on the Edo period
works. It goes without saying that it is entirely a different language with a different
context. Nevertheless, I enjoyed working on materials that I was not familiar with and
learning about another era in Japanese history. Thanks to this opportunity, I was introduced to
the Uehiro Research Division of Historical Materials by Professor Aratake, and I recently
started working as an administrative assistant in their preservation of historic materials

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in studying kuzushiji and preserving ancient
materials. I believe it is because many historical documents and records, such as genealogies,
personal diaries, and official records, are written in kuzushiji, and their content is inaccessible
to many people. Here in the Uehiro Research Division, they preserve literary materials,
including letters and documents from the Edo period found in old houses in the region, as
well as photographs, newspapers, and magazines that have been produced since the 20th
century. They also analyse the written content of these materials and then share the outcome
of their work at history lectures and research symposiums.

Preserving historical materials is a complex and multifaceted process requiring various skills
and expertise. The administrative assistants work on examining, photographing, and
reprinting historical documents and ancient manuscripts. However, since I am inexperienced
in deciphering kuzushiji, I work on digitalisation by taking pictures of the materials. It
requires great care and typically involves several steps. By taking a comprehensive approach
that involves documentation, conservation, storage, digitisation, and education, we can help
to ensure that these valuable historical artefacts and structures are protected for future

Overall, the process of digitising ancient manuscripts and photographing classical documents
is a complex and time-consuming process. However, it is an essential step in preserving these
valuable historical artefacts for future generations and making them accessible to a broader
audience. The study of kuzushiji is important for preserving Japan’s cultural heritage and
providing a deeper understanding of the language and society throughout history. It is an
ongoing effort to ensure that these valuable documents are accessible and can be studied and
appreciated by future generations.
(Berfu Şengün Université Paris Cité、Universität Zürich)