How to Do Research on Japanese Literature

This is an introductory guide to doing research that I wrote for an undergraduate class on Japanese literature that I’m teaching this fall. Because I wish someone had given me this sort of information when I was a freshman in college, I’m posting this guide online with the hope that it will prove useful to a broader audience.

Before I begin, I have two pieces of advice that should prove helpful to the research process.

(1) The success of your search is largely dependent upon the strength of your search terms. Instead of searching for material on a broad topic, search instead for a key figure closely associated with that topic. For example, search for “Kirino Natsuo” instead of “Japanese mystery fiction,” or “Tsuruya Namboku IV” instead of “zankoku no bi.”

(2) Once you have successfully located a book or article, pay close attention to its footnotes and bibliography. These citations will help steer you toward work related to your topic that might not appear in more specialized searches, and they’re a very good place to start looking for material in Japanese.

This guide is divided into three sections: academic sources (that require a subscription through a university library), extra-academic sources (that do not require a subscription), and Japanese-language sources (which also do not require a subscription). Since most basic information, such as biographical details and publishing history, is readily available online, this guide focuses on databases that will help you find books and articles on a given topic.

Academic Sources

This database offers full-text academic articles for download as PDF files. It also contains citations of articles that can be downloaded directly from the websites of academic journals. Some of these journals, like Monumenta Nipponica, require a university subscription in order to be accessed, while others, like intersections, are freely available to anyone.

Project MUSE
This is another database offering full-text academic articles available for download, but it draws its search results from a slightly different selection of journals. For example, articles from the journal Mechademia are available on Project MUSE but not on JSTOR.

The Bibliography of Asian Studies
This is a specialty database that will display book-length monographs and translations in addition to academic articles. It will also occasionally display academic work written in French and German. This database contains only citations, however, and not full-text articles. Like JSTOR and Project MUSE, the Bibliography of Asian Studies must be accessed through a university connection or university proxy server.

Unlike the above three databases, this collection of databases is intended for a less “academic” user. Searches made on this aggregate will thus turn up sources such as general interest magazine articles and book reviews, although occasionally an academic article might show up as well. EBSCO is usually available in public libraries, but a subscription is still necessary to access the site.

Extra-Academic Sources

The primary goal of Amazon is to make money, and Amazon can’t make money if it can’t help you find what you’re looking for. Amazon’s advanced search engine makes it perhaps the single best place to find academic books either on or related to your topic. Not only does Amazon search titles, but it also searches tables of contents and whatever portions of the text it has available for free viewing, which usually includes the Library of Congress cataloging data. As a result, Amazon is one of the few places where less specific search terms can be used effectively. Amazon search results will include the newest books and books that aren’t even in print yet, which I believe makes the site a necessary supplement to library catalogs.

It’s always good to check the Wikipedia article(s) on your topic for their citations. Academics (especially grad students working on cutting-edge research) are not above editing Wikipedia articles and citing their own books and essays. Wikipedia is therefore a relatively painless way to find just-published studies, especially when you’re researching a topic related to contemporary Japan.

Google Scholar
Google Scholar displays citations that will link you either directly to Google Books or to an article on a database like JSTOR. Google Scholar is therefore useful to people who have access to InterLibrary Loan (through a public library) but not to a university library and its resources.

University Library Webpages
I have never encountered a university library webpage that requires you to enter login information in order to search its online database. Thus, even if you’re not a student at a particular university, you can still search that library’s collection. Moreover, the library websites of major universities usually contain pages devoted to a specific area of study (for example, here is Columbia University’s page on Japanese Studies), although you typically need to be connected through the university to access the databases that are listed on these pages. In any case, it has been my experience that American university libraries will generally let you physically enter the building even if you’re not affiliated with the university, although you won’t be able to check out books without special permission.

Japanese-Language Sources

National Diet Library OPAC
An institution similar to the American Library of Congress, the National Diet Library houses every book published in Japan. The library’s OPAC (online public access catalog) is your key to searching their collection. If you’re lazy like me and prefer to read articles instead of books, you can use the library’s specialized magazine and article search (雑誌記事索引の検索). You can search also run searches in English, but be aware that these searches will only turn up books and articles written in English and other foreign languages. If you happen to be in Japan, it is possible to visit both the Tokyo and Kyoto branches of the National Diet Library without any sort of credentials or special registration. The library staff will find and deliver any materials you request, and they will photocopy articles and book chapters for a small fee. If you can’t make it to Japan, the library website contains many other services and features besides the OPAC, some of which are explained by this essay.

WINE (Waseda University OPAC)
For more specialized academic searches, you can try using the OPAC of a major Japanese research university. I have found that the one hosted by Waseda University has been the most helpful. Running a search on a university library’s collection will often turn up a different (and more useful) set of books and journals than a search of the National Diet Library, and university library call numbers can be extremely useful when placing a request on InterLibrary Loan. Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily difficult to enter Japanese university libraries in person if one is not already affiliated with the university.

While a university library OPAC is good for academic books, CiNii is a great place to go for academic articles. A search on CiNii will get you far more relevant results than a search through the National Diet Library, and all entries are linked directly to WorldCAT, which makes it easy to request articles through InterLibrary Loan. It is possible to download PDF copies of certain articles from CiNii, but you must be a registered user, a privilege for which you have to pay. You must also pay for each download. I have never felt the need to pay these user fees, so I’m not sure how well the paid service works, but I have still found the site to be extraordinarily useful.

Amazon Japan
Because so many general interest books and journals are published on specialized topics in Japan, Amazon Japan is perhaps the single most convenient source for literary, cinematic, and cultural criticism written in Japanese. Although Amazon Japan doesn’t offer discounts like the American Amazon, the site is somehow able to keep books in stock that are almost impossible to find anywhere else. Furthermore, once you add a book to your cart, you are instantly given the titles of two dozen other books and journal issues on your topic. Just because you have put something in your cart doesn’t mean you have to buy it (especially since international shipping is expensive), and Amazon Japan contains all the publishing information you will need to request a book or journal through InterLibrary Loan. Never underestimate the power of Amazon.


As I mentioned earlier, this guide is meant to be both brief and introductory. More specialized research will obviously require more specialized databases, indexes, and dictionaries. Thankfully, a great deal of the information that used to be contained only in rare books is now freely accessible online. The best place to start looking for specialized resources is through the web pages of the libraries of major research institutions in America and Canada. It is also possible to get in touch with the librarians and bibliographers of the East Asian Studies collections of these libraries if you’re stuck. People put things online so that they can be accessed. This information exists so that you can make use of it. Whether you’re a professional student or just someone who’s curious about a particular topic, you will definitely be able to find out what you want to know and get your hands on all sorts of interesting things to read.

The image at the top of this guide illustrates the concept of studying by moonlight reflected off of snow in winter and by the luminescence of a bag of fireflies in summer. When it comes to research, where there is a will, there is a way. Good luck!

7 thoughts on “How to Do Research on Japanese Literature

  1. Great guide! I’ve reblogged it over at Shinpai deshou! 🙂 When I get around to adding these to our resources I’ll be sure to link back to this article.

      1. Thanks! 🙂 Love your Akutagawa icon btw. We really need to get more reviews of databases and online resources up on the site… I thought the summer would be a good time for that and somehow it didn’t happen. I think we have at least a couple in the works, though.

      2. I think this is my favorite pic of him though:

        I searched for it on the web forever back in undergrad (as I was trying to explain to someone how hardcore awesome Akutagawa was, but couldn’t find this photo), and ended up just scanning it off the back of my copy of Kappa. 😉

  2. Thanks for posting this–a lot of it is familiar but I didn’t know about the advanced Amazon search engine. I still find CiNii somewhat intimidating, but I think I’m registered to use it via my university, so I should at least try to get more familiar with it.

  3. Unlike the above three databases, this collection of databases is intended for a less “academic” user. Searches made on this aggregate will thus turn up sources such as general interest magazine articles and book reviews, although occasionally an academic article might show up as well. EBSCO is usually available in public libraries, but a subscription is still necessary to access the site.

    One thing I have always found frustrating about EBSCO is that precisely because it’s actually just a platform/interface, users at different institutions have access to vastly different sets of databases under it. And many libraries do a rather poor job of letting readers know just *which* EBSCO databases they have access to, or even showing how *to* expand a search beyond whatever is set as the default one!

    …Having said that, of the close to 400 individual databases that EBSCO covers, the ones that I’d say are the most useful for research into topics related to Japanese literature are Academic Search Premier, Film & Television Literature Index, Humanities International Complete, and the MLA International Bibliography.

    1. As a platform, EBSCO has always struck me as an explosion of information. I’ve found that it’s good for locating a range of material on topics relating to contemporary Japan and recently published Japanese fiction, and it’s especially useful if one happens to be researching manga. Still, there’s so much to process and evaluate with EBSCO that I don’t recommend it as a good starting point for an undergraduate looking for peer-reviewed sources.

      The databases you mentioned are indeed useful; but, since this is a guide for Japanese literature specifically, I thought it best to highlight the more specialist databases that are more likely to turn up consistently relevant results. Also, as problematic as it is to admit this, there is nothing more embarrassing than reading an article on Japanese literature written by someone who knows nothing about Asia, which one is far more likely to find on one of the broader databases. (Some of the insanely racist statements my students have cited from peer-reviewed essays written by tenured English professors still keep me up at night.)

      The academic job market being what it is, I will probably never have graduate students. Still, if I ever end up writing a graduate-level research guide, it will be substantially longer and more detailed. Where undergraduates are concerned, though, it’s probably best to keep things as simple and immediately accessible as possible.

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