The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Orality and Literacy—The Transmission of Folk Knowledge in Japan

Joint Research Coordinator SASAHARA Ryoji

Reserch Theme List


Since ancient times, written characters have been used in Japan. They have been understood at the folk level and not just among the intelligentsia or ruling classes, and this trend expanded to other social strata during the early modern and modern periods. This situation is an indication that the techniques used in the past by ethnology to research orality (oral transmission) have not proved sufficient for a thorough understanding of Japan’s folk culture. For that reason this research will survey Japan’s folk society during the early modern and modern periods to clarify the actual state of written culture in terms of how the general population acquired the ability to read and write; how written records in the form of protective amulets, paper charms, books in the classical language (kobun), diaries, and other written forms were created, stored and read/understood; how tile-block prints, almanacs, books and other printed materials were published and distributed; and how books of transmission in religion, general knowledge or the arts were created and transmitted. We will also try to shed light on the roles that these things played in shaping and transmitting folk culture in terms of the historical recognition, social consciousness, popular religions and oral arts of the general population. In place of the past emphasis within ethnology on an understanding of folk culture based on orality, we will attempt to establish a new understanding of folk culture rooted in knowledge and information that had been formed and transmitted through a symbiotic relationship between orality and literacy.