One of the premodern document types that receives the least attention in terms of English-language learning resources is komonjo, documents such as letters or official orders that are outside the purview of more narrative works such as diaries or literary tales. However, these primary sources are receiving more attention in recent years, especially through helpful sites such as Princeton University’s Komonjo website, spearheaded by historian Thomas Conlan.
The website as a whole features numerous medieval documents from collections such as the Migita, Uesugi, and Awazu. The homepage contains helpful explanations about the production of komonjo, their size and quality, and other historical details related to how documents were created and used.
There are presently four main sections of the site that each explore a set of related documents, such as three letters sent in 1559 between the Ashikaga and Uesugi families related to a special recipe for gunpowder, or over a dozen documents related to the Awazu family’s rescue of the emperor’s wardrobe during the Ōnin War (1467-77). The subjects all include a written and video introduction by Professor Conlan providing background on the collections and extremely useful demonstrations on how letters were folded and transported. This is especially useful for understanding specialized terminology regarding letter types that one encounters in Japanese source collections.
Documents within each of the four sections are also given individual pages with detailed information on their content, below which high resolution photographs of the komonjo are lined up with text transcriptions.
The photographs have convenient zooming options and can also go full-screen for close examination. Underneath, translations of the documents into English are provided. In many cases, these translations are also annotated with further details about the historical context or material nature of the document (such as calligraphic style). These details are extremely helpful for understanding just much information the examination of even a small number of documents can yield in medieval studies.
While this site is a work in progress still in its beginning stages, it will no doubt become a very useful resource for understanding komonjo and their historical relevance. There is much more expected to come from Professor Conlan and his students in the future, so be sure to check it out regularly!