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Top > Publications > NDL Newsletter > Back Numbers 2012 > No. 182, April 2012

National Diet Library Newsletter

No. 182, April 2012

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Digitizing 78-rpm records: for use and preservation

Soh Fujimoto
Chairperson of Japan Traditional Cultures Foundation

This article is a translation of the article in Japanese of the same title
in NDL Monthly Bulletin No. 606 (September 2011).

1 HiRAC: Historical Records Archive Promotion Conference

The Historical Records Archive Promotion Conference (HiRAC) was established as a private organization on April 27, 2007, consisting of six organizations: the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippon Hoso Kyokai: NHK); Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (JASRAC); Japan Council of Performers’ Organizations; Visual Industry Promotion Organization (VIPO); Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ); and Japan Traditional Cultures Foundation.

The purpose of the HiRAC is to digitally preserve sound sources in the masters in order to prevent those on early 78-rpm records and the masters, which are historic and cultural properties, from deteriorating or being scattered and lost.

The first recording in Japan is said to be the 273 disks of 78-rpm records produced by Frederic William Gaisberg (1873-1951), an engineer of the Gramophone Company (present Electric and Musical Industries (EMI)) in the U.K., who visited Japan in 1903. These records contain various sound sources such as hit songs and vocal sounds reflecting the society of the time in addition to gagaku (ancient court music), noh and kyogen plays, gidayu (a form of ballad drama), nagauta, tokiwazu, kiyomoto and kouta (singing accompanied by shamisen music), and rakugo (comic storytelling). The oldest recording by Japanese artists is considered to be one featuring nagauta, shigin (chanting of classical poems), the hit song “Oppekepe,” etc. recorded at the Gramophone Company in 1900 by the Otojiro Kawakami theater company which traveled to Europe. The masters of these sound sources are carefully preserved up to the present day in the EMI archive department in London.

The record business in Japan started in 1910 when Nippon Columbia was founded. Since then, 78-rpm records were the mainstream of musical disks until the spread of LP and EP records around 1960. The masters of record companies from before the War, such as the Victor Company of Japan, Teichiku Entertainment and King Records, suffered serious damage and loss in the War; many of some 50 companies which were established since the Meiji era disappeared and their histories are no longer known; and thus almost all of the masters were lost. It is considered that about a half of the estimated 100,000 sound sources are stored in record companies, a part of the other half are held by broadcasting companies, individual enthusiasts and museums around the nation in 78-rpm records, and the rest have been scattered or lost. 78-rpm records made with natural resin secreted by scale insects are hard and fragile. Records of which the sound sources cannot be played will increase due to deterioration with age and cracks for more than half a century.

Although it is only 100 years since recording and playing became possible, but the HiRAC has been established as an organization to promote a digital archive which can again make the precious sound of the early era available to the public.

2 Significance of the project for preserving sound sources

Over half a century after the end of the Meiji era, sound sources of various genres such as music, entertainment, speeches and on-the-spot broadcasting recorded on 78-rpm records once played an important role as recording media which mirrored the society. These 78-rpm records are nothing less than intangible cultural heritage you can recognize only through the sound.

Sounds cannot be revived though written records; for example "Ryojin hisho" (collection of songs woven in the late Heian period) which were sung in the middle ages in Japan, and “Dunhuang pipapu” (lit. music score of pipa, a Chinese musical instrument, discovered in Dun Huang) in China. Usually the proverb goes “Seeing is believing,” but as the actual sound cannot be conveyed no matter how much we explain it in words, it should go as “Listening is believing.”

Computers and networks progress day by day, far beyond our imagination, and before long, the time will come when every piece of ubiquitous information around the world can be obtained in a moment through myriad networked computers. In parallel with the progress of the information revolution which human beings had never before experienced, digitization of cultural heritage built in every field including books, literatures, paintings, photographs and film images has been rapidly progressing across the globe. In this new era, people can share their wisdom and knowledge through the digital information revolution and enjoy information and entertainment from anywhere at any time. In other words, information which is not digitized is, in effect, lost. “Sounds” embodied in the 78-rpm records are a vivid recollection of Japanese sounds a century to a half-century ago. We believe that the meaning of this project lies in making all of them into materials of Japanese sound culture for the future.


3 Background of the supply for the NDL

Although the HiRAC was established with this background, digital archiving of sound sources of 78-rpm records was unknown terrain for the six constituent organizations. So, to start with, two working groups were established inside the HiRAC: the technological study working group which reviews record technology and audio format related to archiving, and the operational study working group which considers the formulation of operational rules for the utilization of archives. The operational study working group asked sound source owners to assign a management code to every sound source, to submit the list of sound sources, to research on the copyright information and to place an order for archiving. The working group also conducted a survey on the copyright information in JASRAC, built the necessary elements of metadata and created the database based on the metadata sequentially. For its part, the technological study working group developed a play method for master records, which have the opposite groove pattern and rotating direction from the 78-rpm records: phonograph needle which can read the peaks between the grooves, tested players which read the groove using laser, determined digital format and conducted a survey on rotation number which was unstable in the initial stage.

In the first fiscal year, the HiRAC started a preliminary survey and consideration on the methods to record sound sources and a study of technology-related fields, and consolidating metadata and archiving sound sources were begun in the next fiscal year, 2008. In FY2010, we started to prepare and consider the release and use of the archive and planned to start offering the archive in FY2011. But we did not actually have a fixed plan for its release.

In 2008, the second year of the HiRAC, the good news was brought that the NDL would tackle the future release of the historical recordings in parallel with the digital archiving of books and periodicals. We think this succeeded because the NDL responded to the determination of RIAJ, which played a pivotal role in moving forward the release project.

At present, there are some major museums preserving 78-rpm records and opening them to the public: the Niikappu Record Museum in Niikappu town, Hokkaido, the Kanazawa Phonograph Museum in Kanazawa City, and the National Showa Memorial Museum in Chiyoda Ward in Tokyo. But the masters owned by these museums have been donated by individuals or organizations and you cannot clarify the whole picture of the sound sources left in 78-rpm records. Moreover, only visitors can listen to the sound sources so it is difficult to say that they are released universally. To meet the HiRAC’s aspiration to release the digital archives of the 78-rpm records, offering them in the NDL was certainly the best choice.


Supplying the sound sources to the NDL began in FY2009 and they were released at the end of May 2011. Reproduced sounds of these 78-rpm records are valuable materials which can be witnesses of ages, depicting colorful sound culture as it was and delivering it to us in this age.

The HiRAC believes that the completion of this archive unveiling the whole history of recordings in Japan will be valuable infrastructure of Japanese audio materials and sound information through reproducing 78-rpm records which testify to Japanese sound culture.

Digitized sound sources of HiRAC are available in the Historical Recordings Collection of the NDL

In order to provide the digital archive of sound sources in 78-rpm records and masters, the NDL deliberated on the conditions of use and a contract with the HiRAC. As a result, to broadly release them to the public, the NDL secured a budget in the costs for acquisition of library materials, and sound sources digitized by the HiRAC have been delivered as a four-year plan from FY2009. Approximately 50,000 items will be delivered by the end of FY2012.
On May 31, 2011, about 2500 items ready for use were released in the Historical Recordings Collection of the NDL (http://dl.ndl.go.jp/#music). As of January 2012, more than 25,000 items are available only inside the library, and about 600 copyright-expired items are available on the Internet.
On January 4, 2012, the NDL started a trial service to deliver sound sources contained in the Historical Recordings Collection to public libraries. This service makes all the contents of the Collection available on the premises of the participating public libraries. The list of participating libraries is available on our website (http://dl.ndl.go.jp/ja/rekion librarylist.html) (in Japanese).
For details of the Historical Recordings Collection, please also refer to the following article:
“Audio Materials Collection and the Historical Recordings Collection in the NDL” CDNLAO Newsletter, No. 73, March 2012.

(Digital Library Division, Kansai-kan of the NDL)

❉About the author❉

Mr. Soh Fujimoto
Mr. Soh Fujimoto was born in Tokyo in 1950. He entered the Victor Company of Japan, Ltd. in April 1976, and created over 1,000 titles of works as an audio and visual producer specializing in Japanese classical music and folk performing arts, ethnic music around the world and western classics in Victor Entertainment, Inc., the music creative department of this company. He is an executive board member of the Regional Culture Award Tax Accountant’s Fund and the Association for Promoting Choral Music, an advisor of the Enlivenment of Japanese Traditional Cultures Foundation, an executive board member of Nihon Shakuhachi Kyokai (lit. Japanese bamboo flute association), and a commissioner of Tokyo Culture Creation Project and vice chairman of the HiRAC at present. He also served as the chairperson of the awards committee of the Tokyo Japanese Music Competition and a judge of the awards committee of the Kenjun Memorial National Koto Music Competition held by Kurume City, Fukuoka Prefecture.


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