No.092 - NIHU Digital Humanities Seminar I: An Invitation to the Digital Humanities

NIHU Digital Humanities Seminar I: An Invitation to the Digital Humanities

 During its Fourth Mid-term Plan period, April 2022 to March 2028, the National Institutes for the Humanities (NIHU) is prioritizing the promotion of digital humanities (DH). NIHU seeks not only to apply digital technology to various research endeavors in the field, but in order to make the humanities more appealing, establish a space for discourse among scholars and people outside academia, and develop new research platforms for the next generation.


 As a first step in this direction, NIHU has released a video series called the “DH Seminars” on its YouTube channel. The first episode “An Invitation to the Digital Humanities” features KIBE Nobuko, President of NIHU and scholar of linguistics, and HORI Kōichi, NIHU’s Executive Director and specialist in artificial intelligence (AI). Together, they guide humanities scholars—who may be hesitant about digital technology—into the world of the digital humanities.




(1) Detailed progress on digital technology application in research

 In the early 1980s, computers were not being used in humanities research. Instead, it entailed an accumulation of “analog” tasks. KIBE, who was a student in those days, recalls being instructed to use the indexes of terms for classical works—compilations such as the Man’yōshū sōsakuin [Comprehensive Index of the Man’yōshū] (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1974), edited by ATSUO Masamune —to collect examples from original texts. She would handwrite the information gathered onto cards and organize them in order to draft her academic papers. Since that time, text search functions have replaced indexes, and index cards have evolved into databases, thereby streamlining scholars’ work processes through the application of digital technology.


 NIHU institutes started to introduce large-scale computers around the same time in the 1980s, and HORI became engaged in several related projects through his work at the National Institute of Japanese Literature (NIJL). One involved developing a database from bibliographies of source works, which eventually evolved into today’s Union Catalogue Database of Japanese Texts. Another was a joint study by scholars of Japanese literature in which they linked certain terms found in the Japanese classics with related information, such as author and book title, for a visual representation of words and expressions occupying different conceptual spaces. For example, for the expression mono no aware (lit., the poignant beauty of things), different scholars might interpret the same expression in different ways, so a simple keyword search function often will not suffice for a database. DH is concerned with how to handle datasets that are deeply associated with these types of human subjectivity—an aspect that fascinates some AI researchers, according to HORI.


 KIBE and HORI agreed that there still is not much usable data for research even today. In the DH field, how to process the collected data is key, and new perspectives are explored by examining the depth of datasets and coordinating them. Potentially, DH can also offer a more personalized data development process by reflecting the different ways each scholar interprets sources. HORI sees DH simply as an extension of the “appeal” of conventional humanities, and KIBE also draws parallels between the data development endeavors in DH and the scholarly practice of annotating classics.




(2) The intersection of humanities scholars, the humanities, and DH

 According to KIBE, creating indexes and databases is a very important task that at times takes more effort than writing theses. She argues that the humanities from here on should properly acknowledge data and database development as scholarly achievement.


 HORI agrees and states that instead of dividing roles between data developers and users, a research cycle encompassing data creation and usage processes could potentially advance and enrich academic endeavors.


 According to KIBE, new ideas may emerge by creating digital data and visual representations of research processes—which used to exist only inside the researchers’ heads—and by linking this data with information from other fields. However, humanities scholars are currently unable to readily expand into DH because of the technical barriers of programming and other skills. To remedy this, there are plans for NIHU’s DH projects to host workshops for technical support and encourage the participation of diverse scholars.




(3) Can digital technologies be key to transcending individual expertise?

 Environmental issues, regional conflicts, rural vitalization, and diversity are among the many challenges of modern Japanese society, and to solve these, we need to muster diverse knowledge. For example, regarding the dialects and languages that are facing extinction, scholars interpret the underlying conditions of a surface issue by utilizing and deepening their own expertise—which means interdisciplinary discussion among those in different fields is still difficult. This is where digital technology can help by serving as a common language. By digitally preserving the materials used and processes explored in disparate research activities, NIHU hopes to develop a cross-disciplinary knowledge platform.


 In this video, HORI explains his vision by sketching a diagram on paper with a pen. The clip offers a glimpse into HORI’s old-school side, despite being an AI researcher with programming capabilities.




(4) The potential overlap between digital and analog in research

 Scholars who use digital technology have much to learn from their counterparts who do not. For instance, the latter type of researchers, when collecting details of specific research areas where no database exists, can identify information through an instinct they developed through years of experience. This instinct is a product of the non-digitized knowledge and information they accumulated through previous research endeavors. DH is expected to link this individual knowledge scholars have as well as aggregate research result datasets with other data, serving not only as a tool to make the humanities more appealing, but also as a medium to connect or utilize data to inspire human interchange.



KIBE Nobuko President

KIBE Nobuko


National Institutes for the Humanities

Scholar of Linguistics

HORI Koichi Executive Director

HORI Koichi

Executive Director

National Institutes for the Humanities

Specialist in Artificial Intelligence (AI)