Preserving the ephemeral: reflections on archiving Japanese websites

August 1, 2017
Dr Regan Murphy Kao

In 2015 when I applied for a grant from the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) to initiate a web archiving program, I viewed our project from a theoretical perspective.  While in the past we might collect ephemera, such as letters, small-run newsprints, or underground comics, these type of critical sources of information are now produced in the format of online websites, which are created, updated, deleted with a previously unknown speed.  In order for future scholars to have access to this kind of primary resource, I thought that it was academically important to preserve online conversations that were distinctive of the current moment.  With the generous support of FSI and Stanford Libraries, I initiated a web archiving program called “Snapshot of Japan, 2016-2017,” which aimed to build a curated collection of archived websites that would capture the major issues as they developed in contemporary society.

The project took on new meaning for me recently as we sought to archive a limited number of blogs of ground-breaking, influential figures – people whose writings were widely read and represented a new way of approaching a topic.  One of the people we choose was Mao Kobayashi.  Selected by BBC as one of the 100 influential women of 2016, Mao broke with tradition and openly described her experience with cancer in a blog that gripped Japan. She harnessed this new medium to define her life rather than allow cancer to define it.  The BBC article on her selection into this prestigious group cites Mao’s motivation for writing as follows:  

If I died now, what would people think? ‘Poor thing, she was only 34’? ‘What a pity, leaving two young children’? I don’t want people to think of me like that, because my illness isn’t what defines my life.  My life has been rich and colourful – I have achieved dreams, sometimes clawed my way through, and I met the love of my life.  I’ve been blessed with two precious children.  My family has loved me and I’ve loved them.  So I’ve decided not to allow the time I’ve been given to be overshadowed entirely by disease.  I will be who I want to be.[i]

About a week after we sent out the notification letter describing our web archiving program and our desire to preserve her blog, the news broke.  I woke up to an email saying that Mao Kobayashi had passed away.  Her brave posts came to an end that day, but we did not want them to go away forever.  The whole Japanese collection team at Stanford’s East Asia Library was affected by the news.  We spent each day thinking of her family and her young children.  And then the response came from her agent.  The family agreed to our request; we could move forward with preserving her blog.  Her words would be preserved in the Stanford Digital Repository and backed up in servers across America.  Her inspiring, ground-breaking reflections, which broke the mold of hiding disease and approached cancer bravely in a public forum, would be preserved for the future.  Her posts are, through the effort of her husband the famous kabuki actor, Ebizo Ichikawa, being translated into English, providing access to an even larger audience. 

I remember in graduate school reading closely a text written by an 18th century Japanese nanny-turned-Buddhist nun soon after the death of her charge, a young prince.  Her words still resonated hundreds of years later, speaking of her loss but also of hope that a trace of his presence would live on in her written words.  Preserved in the form of a book, her poetic writing reached across the divide between the past and the present.  The book, held in the library where I studied, preserved the “trace” of her sentiment, keeping it over time for future readers.

Writing openly about her experience with cancer, Mao Kobayashi embraced a new way of communicating and she forged a new way of defining the self.  The loss of this important voice underscored for me the value of preserving online content.  Archiving her blog ensures that her bravery reaches forward through time, its power resonating and inspiring future readers. The format is new – preserving a curated selection of websites – but the impetus is old.  Libraries ensure that there is a path connecting the past, present and future.


[i] “100 Women 2016: Kokoro – the cancer blog gripping Japan” 23 November 2016.


Dr Regan Murphy Kao

Head, EAL Special Collections
Curator, Japanese Collections
Curator, East Asian Religions (interim)