Thomas Conlan and Librarian Setsuko Noguchi Uncover Rare Japanese Medieval Documents

Written by
Stephanie Ramírez, Princeton University Library
Dec. 12, 2018

Conlan and Noguchi uncovered rare Japanese medieval documents from Sakuramotobō. Pictured are the documents upon arrival to Princeton. Photo by Setsuko Noguchi, Princeton University Library (PUL)

A Rare Discovery

In 2015, Thomas Conlan, a Princeton professor of East Asian studies and history who specializes in Japan, sought a set of “komonjo,” or Japanese medieval documents, for his graduate seminars in ancient and medieval Japanese history. As he often did, he collaborated with Princeton University Library (PUL) Japanese Studies Librarian, Setsuko Noguchi, to acquire a collection that his students could study and transcribe. The two purchased a set of documents from Yoshino, Nara prefecture in Japan, but what they found was rarer and more significant than they ever anticipated. 

The documents originated from Sakuramotobō, a famous temple which lodged pilgrims who ascended and worshipped its nearby mountains and a center for Shugendō, a belief system that centered on mountain asceticism. Sakuramotobō, one of many temples founded in Yoshino in the seventh century, suffered because the Meiji government declared that native “Shintō” shrines and Buddhist temples should be distinct. As a result, Shugendō was banned. Many old records were lost, including the earlier Sakuramotobō documents.

“This mountain worship has left very few sources,” Conlan said. “What happened was in 1868, the Japanese government declared this to be a heretical set, and a lot of these records were destroyed. Some things survived, maybe the link to political leaders. But these kinds of documents don’t survive otherwise.”

Read more at News at Princeton.