The National Diet Library (NDL) in Tokyo is an undeniably large resource with every new publication in Japan required by law to be stored there. While anyone over the age of 18 can apply for user registration and gain access to the library’s resources, for over 10 years the NDL has been developing its’ online services and galleries. NDL’s massive digitization project continues as content is periodically released on the website.
The main page user guides and several online features are bilingual, so non-Japanese language readers can access a part of the wealth of materials available online. For the most part the website is easy to navigate, but if you don’t know where to begin I suggest looking at the List of Online Services page. NDL’s digitized contents can be divided into 3 categories; (1)Primary information, (2) Secondary information, and (3) Electronic Exhibition.
(1)Primary information, such as Diet proceedings and legislation, is exclusively Japanese language only. The Digital Library from the Meiji Era has 172,000 of 514,000 digitized volumes available online. The catalog is not yet sorted into online volumes (copyright has expired) and volumes available only at the library, but NDL provides this page featuring notable updates to the internet archive. (such as late Meiji parodies of Natsume Sōseki’s I am a Cat or early crossword puzzles from the Taisho era)
(2) Secondary information and periodicals can be found by registered users with NDL-OPAC (Japanese only). Currently, NDL staff seem to be focusing on the digitization of primary information, so availability of secondary information without user registration is limited on the website.
(3)Electronic exhibits are one of the easiest features of the site to access. NDL currently has about a dozen online galleries available in English/Japanese, many relating to modernization and Japan’s history of international relations. The galleries serve as an informative introduction to a modern topic with supplemental original documents. Documents, photographs, paintings, and books are viewable online in high resolution. While you normally wouldn’t be able to do so without special permission, at an online exhibit you can turn the pages of some rare and treasured books, like this copy of Ise Monogatari from the 16th-17th century. In galleries such as the “The Japanese Calendar” there is an element of user participation. For example, there’s a quiz about reading the Daisho-reki calendar, which indicates long and short months in visually interesting ways.
It’s not possible to cover everything NDL’s website has to offer in one sitting, so I won’t even try. I’m still exploring new features. Most recently, a small part of historical recordings (Japanese only) no longer under copyright from the library’s vast collection were released. I was happy to find that an obon song (Aizu Bandai-san) I remember from my days living in Fukushima is among the recordings available online. If you’ve already browsed the electronic galleries, the quarterly NDL Newsletter also has selections and articles in English from 1997 to present.
If you are a student, researcher, or Japan enthusiast, even a quick look at what the NDL has to offer may lead to new discoveries or review of old material. I started out casually browsing for information about kabuki actors, but it can easily turn into several hours of unintentional fascination.
Links from the National Diet Library website.