Putting Japan on the Map

By Miriam KingsbergAugust 17, 2016

Putting Japan on the Map

Cartographic Japan by Kären Wigen, Sugimoto Fumiko, and Cary Karacas

“THE JAPANESE PEOPLE TODAY,” co-editor Kären Wigen writes in the opening sentence of this landmark collection, “are voracious consumers of cartography.” As Cartographic Japan proceeds to demonstrate, maps have widely inspired, challenged, and directed Japanese movement and imagination since at least the 16th century. This volume tackles various intriguing questions raised by early modern, modern, and contemporary attempts to render three-dimensional space into (mainly) two-dimensional artifacts.

To survey some 500 years’ worth of Japanese maps, Cartographic Japan’s editors — Wigen, a geographer and historian at Stanford; Sugimoto Fumiko, a historian at the University of Tokyo; and Cary Karacas, a geographer at the College of Staten Island — have assembled a team of no fewer than 47 exceptional contributors. These authors represent an array of disciplines, including art, art history, history, architecture, urban planning, anthropology, geography, communications and information management, literature, library studies, religious studies, and East Asian studies. They span all career stages from graduate student to professor emeritus, and include some of the most exciting researchers currently active in the field. Appropriately for a work that seeks to situate the archipelago in a wider world, the volume encompasses voices not only from Japan and the United States, but also from mainland Asia, Europe, Australia, and Canada.

Most of the contributors perform a close reading of a particular map or set of maps, contextualizing cartography within a rich historical background. How, the authors ask, can a map tell us about a particular locality, trend, or event? They share a view of cartography as the practice of transforming physical landscapes into abstractions. Notably, “maps” of figurative topics, such as relationships among persons, concepts, and texts, are excluded from consideration.

Cartographic Japan is divided into four parts. The first section, covering the 16th through 18th centuries, explores the rise of a “robust cartographic culture” ranging from small maps of villages by and for local elites to massive artworks that found their way to European markets. Critically, articles examine maps of both Japan and beyond, adding new evidence of the limitations of the early modern policy of isolation (sakoku). Bringing insights from the history of science to the study of mapmaking in the Tokugawa (Edo) period (1603–1868), Satô Ken’ichi illuminates the often-overlooked survey practices underlying precise and accurate renderings of space. A mid-17th-century effort by the shogunate to map Japan’s provinces resulted in the widespread adoption and diffusion of tools and techniques learned from the Dutch. Marcia Yonemoto illustrates the converse process: the transmission of knowledge from Japan to the West. At the turn of the 18th century, a map of the realm, prepared by a prolific but almost forgotten writer and woodblock artist, was brought to Europe by a Dutch scholar. Repeatedly revised and republished, it acquired trappings and meanings “wholly unintended and unanticipated by the Edo mapmaker” and served for decades as one of the most influential cartographic images of Japan in the West.

Part II of the collection is largely concerned with the 18th- and 19th-century rise of commercial cartography. Fed by growing literacy, travel, and urbanism, a market arose for maps of all kinds, including tourist guides, bird’s-eye views, and spatial depictions of current events. A few authors even note the appearance of faux antique maps, illustrating the popular demand for the application of modern technology to the land and cityscapes of epochs past. Ronald P. Toby shows how cartographers inscribed maps of Edo (present-day Tokyo), then as now the world’s largest city, with information about status distinctions, the “most salient reality” of early modern life in Japan. Mary Elizabeth Berry interrogates the Japanese address system. Why, she asks, have urban residents traditionally identified their location by neighborhood (chô) rather than by street (as in Chinese and Western practice)? Although this was (and is) confusing to outsiders, Berry argues that it serves a more important purpose than navigation: it expresses the irreplaceable function and strong consciousness of local community to residents. Even today, the system remains vital: when displaced from their homes by the “triple disaster” of March 11, 2011, refugees organized camp spaces by chô.

Proceeding from the mundane to the spiritual realm, D. Max Moerman explores the impact of Western-style cartography on Buddhist cosmologies. By the 18th century, maps were regarded as “essential […] to the very survival of Buddhism within an increasingly competitive marketplace of ideas.” The depiction of a Buddhist world according to European conventions illustrates the “neither empirical nor linear” progression of Japanese cartography, challenging teleological narratives of Western science displacing local forms of knowledge and modes of representation.


In Part III, attention shifts to the proliferation of maps chronicling Japan’s urbanization, industrialization, militarization, and expansion from the mid-19th century through the end of World War II. Karacas proposes a threefold typology to categorize the increasingly vast and heterogeneous output of Japanese cartographers. “Exploratory maps” reflected the desire of the last Tokugawa shoguns to define Japan’s borders in the face of imperialist pressure from Russia and the West. Borders were also symbolic, as in the case of those delineating traditional outcaste (eta) areas. “Evidentiary maps” indexed both the goals and the progress of an ever more powerful state and an educated, engaged society. Maps in this category included cadastral surveys, cityscapes, and attempts to locate natural and human catastrophe (fire, earthquake, explosion) in geographic space. Disaster was also represented on “imperial maps” showing the cities, infrastructure, and political logics of Japan’s expanding empire. One particularly poignant map (examined by Brett L. Walker) documents the aftermath of a 1914 mine blast. This event, the worst calamity of its kind ever to take place on Japanese soil, reflected the tragic human costs of Japan’s entry into the global coal economy — costs borne not only by the miners who lost their lives, but also by the millions of East Asian subjects added to the empire with the help of fossil fuels. The stark representation of tunnels, infrastructure, and bodies bore witness to what the author terms “an otherwise invisible geography of violence.”

The final part of the collection is devoted to mapping after 1945 — an understudied era in Japanese history in general and in the history of cartography in particular — though hardly due to lack of sources. Selecting among the present-day “embarrassment of riches,” contributors return to tropes invoked earlier, including urbanism, movement, sacred landscapes, and hazardous events. Uniting these first two themes, Theodore C. Bestor deconstructs a map of Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market, located near the heart of Tokyo. Displaying the supply networks and engineering capacities of its 1930s origins, the market was oriented toward Tokyo Bay and designed to facilitate the passage of express trains that transported seafood from the source to the stall. The map was periodically updated in accordance with the reassignment of sales booths by lottery every five to six years — a process intended to cultivate equality of access for both buyers and sellers. What the map did not show, however, was Tsukiji’s increasing inefficiency in the face of technological development and the exhaustion of local marine resources, as well as the astronomical inflation of the value of the land it occupied. In 2010, a decision was made to move the market. With the awarding of the Olympic Games to Tokyo in 2020, the implementation of this plan accelerated. Mere months from now, when the relocation takes place, a functional map will be transformed into a historical artifact.

Returning to consideration of the sacred, Andrew Bernstein investigates the deployment of cartography to resolve the question of ownership of Mount Fuji, Japan’s most holy and iconic peak. During the years of American occupation (1945–1952), the separation of church and state and dismantling of State Shintô, the national religion of the imperial era, brought forth competing claims by a sect that worshipped the mountain as a deity and the central authorities. In 1951, the sect defended its right to the summit by means of a map depicting the crater as the locus of religious observance. While this map also labeled various trails, wells, ravines, rock formations, and snowfields as sites of devotion, it conspicuously failed to denote a government meteorological observatory in the area. Over two decades later, Japan’s Supreme Court ruling in the shrine’s favor gave legal weight to this vision of Fuji under religious sovereignty. Ironically, Japan’s postwar, American-authored constitution guaranteeing religious freedom and property rights was interpreted to defend the claims of a spiritual institution. As Bernstein concludes, “those wanting to build a new order […] did not transcend the past so much as create new circumstances with which to deal with it.”

On the theme of disaster, Karacas and David Fedman connect the blackening of cities by Allied firebombing to the blackening of destroyed areas on aerial maps. As they show, detailed, colored panoramas highlighting specific military and industrial targets gave way by the end of the war to monochromatic and undifferentiated representations of entire areas. These changing depictions of urban space index the shift to a vision of total war in which whole cities and their inhabitants were reduced to marks for indiscriminate annihilation.

Exploring a more recent catastrophe, Jilly Traganou takes up the newly salient phenomenon of citizen mapping in the wake of earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Following the crisis, residents of affected areas lacked adequate access to information and expertise to understand available data. Insecure and mistrustful of government pronouncements, they turned to citizen mapping to bridge specialist research with social infrastructure. Traganou’s case study of laypersons reasserting the right to contribute to scientific knowledge poses a thought-provoking contrast to most of the articles in the collection, which trace the opposite process: the gradual retrenchment of cartography to professionals. As the author observes, citizen mapping, “a dispersed, nonauthoritarian practice,” is a powerful tool in today’s civil society dominated by experts.

The final articles in the collection present the authors’ own forays into cartography, highlighting the creativity and diversity of contemporary mapmaking. Fabian Drixler uses Tokugawa- and Meiji-era demographic data to plot the geographic incidence of “stillbirths,” or rather, illegal infanticides reported to the authorities as stillbirths. His map records a distinctive clustering of such crimes in particular areas, suggesting the persistence of highly localized understandings of life, death, and responsibility, even in an age of national cohesion. The high frequency of infanticide (claiming over 30 percent of newborn lives annually in some areas) further implied fundamental limitations on the ability of the state to penetrate the private lives of subjects well after the creation of modern institutions of surveillance and control.

Another fascinating cartographic reconstruction is discussed by nihonga (“Japanese pictures”) artist and professor of art Arai Kei, who organized a team of doctoral students to recreate a 10 by 11-foot map of the domain of Bizen (present-day Okayama Prefecture) commissioned by the Tokugawa shogunate in the first years of the 18th century. As Arai relates, the students balked when they discovered that most of their time would be spent covering a vast area with tiny, repetitive brushstrokes that imparted no cartographic information. Their boredom and dismay prompted Arai to speculate about the purpose of the original map’s “excessive ornamentation.” He conjectures that painters may have wished to graphically convey the intensity of their labor as evidence of their devotion to their task and to the regime, given their dependence upon that regime for future support. Through experimental reconstruction, Arai thus elucidates not only the map’s contribution to geographic knowledge but also its commentary on the Edo system of art patronage.

Cartographic Japan constitutes a significant addition to the academic literature on the history of Japanese mapping. Much like the works it describes, the volume may also be treasured as a piece of art and collector’s item in its own right. In appearance it is similar to an atlas: oversized, with slick heavy pages laden with full-color reproductions of historical maps. (Only rarely does the reader open the book to a page without at least one image.) Footnotes are kept to a minimum, although most articles append a selection of recommendations for the curious reader. Despite the high production values of the work, the University of Chicago Press has managed to keep its price down to a very reasonable $45.

Inspired by the equally beautiful and sweeping Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Cartographic Japan is a deeply rewarding compilation of maps and the scholars who appreciate them. The result will be enjoyed not just by researchers in the field of Japanese studies but by all map lovers and bibliophiles.


Miriam Kingsberg is an associate professor of Modern Japanese History at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her book, Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History, was published by the University of California Press in 2013.

LARB Contributor

Miriam Kingsberg is an associate professor of modern Japanese history at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her book, Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History, was published by the University of California Press in 2013.


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