National Museum of Japanese History
“Gender in Japanese History” Tour Report

Akira Tanaka (B’AI Research Assistant, Doctoral student, Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies,
the University of Tokyo )

Date: Monday, November 23, 2020
Location: National Museum of Japanese History
Organized by: B’AI Global Forum, Institute for AI and Beyond at the University of Tokyo

On Monday, November 23, 2020, B’AI held a bus tour to visit the National Museum of Japanese History (hereinafter referred to as “Rekihaku,” Sakura City, Chiba), to observe the special exhibition “Gender in Japanese History,” with a total of 24 researchers and students. On the day, the participants took the utmost precautions to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, such as practicing social distancing and refraining from private conversations. In addition, on Monday, November 30, participants volunteered to meet online to exchange opinions again.

The exhibition was planned based on the artifacts from Rekihaku’s collaborative research “Gendering the History in the Japanese Archipelago” (2016–2018). The social construction of “gender” has been a controversial matter from an interdisciplinary perspective; however, this is the first time Rekihaku has featured “gender” in a special exhibition and it is being discussed on social networking sites as a groundbreaking initiative.

After viewing the exhibition, Professor Yuriko Yokoyama, the project organizer, explained the background to the project and provided an opportunity to discuss it. In doing so, some of the challenges that remain in how historical research relates to controversial issues of the present day, were discussed. For example, there is the limitation that it is difficult to generalize the social reality of the time from the fragments of historical documents. This includes the challenge that a vast number of historical material does not necessarily appear as easily comprehensible to audiences. It has also been noted in the past that there are few researchers specializing in modern history, and this exhibition did not cover much after the 1960s. This was an important issue in thinking of “history” as something that is connected to the present, rather than externalizing it as the past.

In addition, Professor Yokoyama stated that she did not expect the “Gender in Japanese History” to receive such attention. However, as she planned the project, she wondered if museums have become closed to society and she realized the need for the museum to be a venue that has a broad range of contact with citizens and where citizens can ask questions. This awareness of the problem is described as going “from temple to forum” by those involved in the museum. In other words, it is necessary for museums to provide opportunities for people to develop opinions through discussion, rather than the satisfaction of attending the museum and observing something mysterious. In fact, some visitors noted that after viewing “Gender in Japanese History,” they were able to see how “gender” was manifested in the permanent exhibition.

As mentioned above, this tour allowed the delegates to not only learn about the construct of gender from a historical perspective but also to think about the difficulty and hardship of reflecting research results back to society, by listening to the researchers in charge of the exhibition. It is to be expected that Rekihaku is one of the “research institutes” of the Inter-University Research Institute Corporation, National Institutes for the Humanities and its nature is different from that of a museum specializing in curation. In other words, the principle of the museum is to reflect the results of research in history, archaeology and folklore back to society by publishing them in their original form, along with a vast number of historical materials. Therefore, rather than passively acquiring “knowledge” and “education,” the audience is expected to interpret the information and formulate their own ideas through discussion actively and independently. In the researchers’ field of expertise (sociology and media studies), “history” is considered to be constantly reconstructed in multiple layers from the perspective of the present. However, this made the researcher deeply consider the difficulty of reconstructing “history” again based on the subject of “gender,” which has not yet been discussed in sufficient depth.