“The World Map with Explanations of Lands and Oceans”

The anonymous Bankoku yochi sankai zusetsu [“The World Map with Explanations of Lands and Oceans”] was published in Japan in about 1850. It features a world map, on an oval projection, descriptive text, and a globe. It is one of many similar world maps, most anonymous and undated, that were printed in the last eighty years of the Edo period (1603-1868) (Yamashita 1998). While official state policy held Japan in isolation from the rest of the world, Chinese and Dutch merchants were permitted to land and trade at Nagasaki, providing a narrow avenue for cultural exchange. The anonymous author of this world map acknowledged its derivation from Dutch sources, noting that Dutch world maps were all similar to one another in geographical content, although he also claimed its derivation from the work of the master cartographer Nagakubo Sekisui (1717-1801). Nagakubo derived his 1788 world map from the oval-shaped world map published in Beijing in 1602 by the Italian-born missionary, Mateo Ricci (1552-1610) and started the genre of pedagogic world maps exemplified by this map (Unno 1994).

This note and the following translation was the product of an internship at the Osher Map Library in the Fall 2009 semester.

Further Reading

Yamashita Kazumasa. 1998. Chizu De Yomu Edo Jidai (Japanese Maps of the Edo Period). Tokyo. [OML ref GA1243.6 .Y356 1998]

Unno Kazutaka. 1994. “Cartography in Japan.” In, Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, ed. J. B. Harley and David Woodward, 346-477. Vol. 2.2 of The History of Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [OML biblio GA201 H53 1987  v.2 bk.1]

Hayato WAKATSUKI  (BA Geography-Anthropology, USM, 2010)

December 2009


Note: The translation of the text on this map into English was made somewhat demanding because of the need to decipher the old Japanese script. Even though the three types of character used on this map (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) are still the main components of modern Japanese, understanding and reading through the archaisms was hard work. The process was therefore, first, to translate the Japanese archaisms into modern Japanese and, second, to translate these into English. Some parts of the text have been easily translated into colloquial English; other parts necessarily remain more literal. Italicized place names were spelled out phonetically (although using kanji rather than the modern phonetic hiragana or katakana). Clarifications appear in notes, in the form "[n1]," located at the end of the translation.

The text is divided into paragraphs in the original, the start of each paragraph being marked by a circle. The text is in two parts. The main part runs right-to-left across the entire upper register of the image, starting with the title highlighted in red. The lower register, again from right to left, contains further text and legend, below which is a globe, and then the map itself.

Upper register

The world maps spread through the world [i.e., printed/published] were made by the Dutch, with plenty of variation. However, they are usually identical [i.e., in their geographical outlines] and there are no remarkable differences between them.

There are the four great oceans: the farther[n1] eastern ocean [i.e., Atlantic], the nearer eastern ocean [i.e., Pacific], the nearer western ocean [i.e., Indian], and the farther western ocean [i.e., Atlantic, again].

The six continents [or province, region], Asia, Europe, Africa, the North America, the South America, and Australia, are called the six biggest regions.

Dividing the earth into the north and the south, there is the equator in the center. In latitude, the equator is 90 degrees from both the north and the south poles. The equator is where the sun passes overhead on the spring equinox and autumn equinox.  The hottest region in the world is directly on the equator, and there is no cold season like our winter. This region is called the torrid zone.[n2] From there, neither Polaris nor the southern pole star[n3] can be seen. Climbing up the high mountain, Polaris and the south star can be seen as if they stick to the horizon. This phenomenon is called “The polestars on the ground.” Moreover, as you move just 25 ri [98 km/61 miles] northerly, Polaris can be seen higher; thus, as you go farther to the north, it can be found higher [in the sky].

Japan is located in latitude 30 to 40 degrees north. Ezo [i.e., present-day Hokkaido] is in latitude 40 to 47 or 48 degrees north. Russia is around 52 degrees north. Shitsui [i.e., northeastern China, or Manchuria] is in latitude 60 degrees north.  Bokkai [i.e., the Korean kingdom] is around 70 to 80 degrees north. In Bokkai, hours of sunlight are very long, and night is very short. Since Polaris is at an altitude of 90 degrees, it is twinkling above people. The country is called “the night country with icy ocean.” In this region, the sun can be seen all day from the middle of autumn to the middle of spring [sic];[n4] furthermore, the sun rotates around the horizon in turn from the east, south, west, and north to make a day. Thus, the sun can be seen every day. This phenomenon is called night under the midnight sun. Conversely, from winter to spring time, there is the polar night, and the region that the country belongs to is the Frigid Zone.

Leaving [for] the South Pole, the [counting of] degree[s] of latitude starts from the equator, and this is the same thing as leaving [for][n5] the North Pole. However, even though the South Pole has a big ocean and is a continent ranging east and west, the geography of the place is not yet given in detail because there are no ocean lanes to the South Pole. There is also no information about the people living there.

Based on the northern region, you may speculate that the [southern][n6] region is the “night country” when the south star is at an altitude of 90 degrees.

Since the Dutch do not know the end [extent?] of the south, either, there is no record about the South Pole. The four biggest oceans and the six biggest regions are also named by the Dutch. Therefore, there is no record about the oceans and the provinces in Chinese volumes [i.e., in Chinese sources].

[Seen] from the ground [i.e., in Japan], the orbits of the sun and the moon pass to the south from the equator along the ecliptic;[n7] hence, there is the difference in the length of night and day. If the sun on the ecliptic goes farther south [of the equator], it becomes the winter solstice. Likewise, there is the summer solstice if the sun goes to the north [of the equator]. There is a spring and an autumn equinox when the sun is on the equator, and the lengths of night and day become equal.

The circumference of the earth is 90,000 ri [353,430 km/219,600 miles].[n8]

The size of property is measured with a ri such that 250 ri make 1 degree; the roads of Japan are measured with a ri such that 30 to 40 ri make 1 degree.[n9]

The region where the altitude of the south star is 90 degrees is the night country.[n10]

The sun and the moon take a day to pass through 360 degrees. 180 degrees on the ground <unclear>. Dividing 180 degrees into 6 parts with 30 degrees each corresponds to 1 hour [sic] [n11] in the cosmic motion. Therefore, night and day are 12 hours each.

The sun rises in America and the farther eastern ocean when it is 6:00 am, and when it is 6:00 pm on the same day, the sun rises in Japan. Meanwhile, the degree of the motion of the sun is 18 0, and the distance is 45,000 ri (176,715 km/109,809 miles). Moreover, at 4:00 am (the day after the sun rises in America), it reaches on Fukushima in the Atlantic with 180 degrees in motion.

            Canarias [Canary Islands] in the west is at the same latitude as Japan and its climate is very similar to Japan’s.

            From Japan to India is Asia.

            Netherlands and Great Britain are in Europe.

            Nigeria is in Africa.

            Washington under the republic is in North America.

            Brazil and <unclear> are in South America.

            <unclear> and <unclear> are in Australia.

This map is based on the original (Kaitei Nihon Yochi Rotei Zenzu, 1779) by the master Nagakubo Sekisui,[n12] and the purpose of the map is to make it easy for children to look [comprehend] by adding the globe to it.

lower register

Before looking at this map make sure the positions of the equator, the South Pole, and North Pole <remainder unclear>.

In the world, there is the good and evil of lands. The lands are divided into five parts: one temperature zone [i.e., torrid], two frigid zones and two general zones [i.e., temperate]. While the temperature zones are the good, the frigid zones are evil. From Japan to India to Netherland is in the general zone.

            [red splotch] Asia

            [yellow splotch] Europe

            [blue splotch] Africa

            [pink splotch] Australia

            [orange splotch] South America

            [dark grey splotch] North America

            [light grey splotch] Night Country [n13]

            [red rectangle] Equator

            [yellow rectangle] Tropics

            [white square] Twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac [used on the map to mark meridians, along the Equator]

            [red box with yellow frame] Six biggest continents

            [red box with simple frame] Four biggest oceans

According to some stories, this world is divided into 10 regions; thus, there are 3 mountains, 6 oceans, and 1 flat land. This map is designed for measuring the area of the land with the scale of 1 sun [30cm/11.8 inches] corresponding to 10 ri [39.27 km/24.4 miles].


n1. farther and nearer are written literally as “big” and “small,” but in this context both terms seemingly refer not to magnitude but to distance.

n2. Torrid zone is literally written as “temperature zone,” clearly indicating the zone of significant or high temperatures.

n3. While Western astronomy does not recognize a southern equivalent to Polaris, i.e., a single star situated at the celestial south pole, the Daoist astronomical tradition did.

n4. The text is wrong: at 70-80 degrees north, the sun would be visible all day during late spring, summer, and early fall.

n5. The original translates as “from,” but this runs counter to the larger sense of the paragraph, which is to move across the map from the Equator southwards, just as the previous paragraph runs through places from the Equator northwards.

n6. The original translates literally as “the region seen above,” which is to say the region described in the previous paragraph; set in opposition to the northern regions, this is the pole ward, southern area.

n7. Literally: “From the ground, the orbits of the sun and the moon pass to the south from the equator along the ecliptic.” This passage seems to be describing a location to the north of the tropic of Cancer, where the the sun is overhead only at the Summer solstice, so that the sun (and for that matter the moon) always remains to the south. It is logical to think that the intended location is Japan itself.

n8. This figure is almost an order of magnitude too great; the earth’s equatorial circumference is only 24,899miles (40,075km) or about 10,000 ri, assuming that a standardized ri of 2.44 miles is intended (only completely standardized in 1891, although attempted to be set by the Tokugawa shogunate); if the short ri is meant, then the error is less, but still significant.

n9. Literally: “Measure the length of the land with 1 degree equal to 250 ri, the road of Japan is measured 1 degree equal to 30 to 40 ri.” Unno (1994, 384 n.154) noted that the itinerary ri varied, with 36 ch? to the east of Ky?to and 48 ch? to the west; he seems to have equated these, respectively, to the scales on charts of 32/33 ri and 43.75 ri to a degree of latitude. Other sources make it clear that the standard ri of 36 ch? was established in 1891; previously, the Tokugawa shogunate sought to standardize the ri as 36 ch? but still permitted variations. Traditionally, the ri could have 30, 36, or 48 ch?. Another traditional ri had only 6 ch? and seems to have been used for land measure rather than itinerary distances. This paragraph therefore seems to be trying to use ~ but without properly understanding ~ the European practice of defining units of length in terms of a degree of latitude (copied from the Dutch!) in order to say, in a very vague and ambiguous way, that land measurement uses a small ri (250 of which equal one degree) while road (itinerary) measurement uses a longer ri (30-40 of which equal one degree). The small ri seems to be of 6 ch?, the long ri of 36-48 ch?.

n10. The repetition of a previous paragraph was perhaps the wood cutter’s error.

n11. Error: 1 hour’s passage of the sun equates to 15 degrees of longitude, not 30.

n12. Unno (1994, 414-15) noted that Nagakubo’s 1779 Kaisei Nihon Yochi Rotei Zenzu [“The Revision of the Japanese Road Map”] was actually only of Japan itself. It is more logical to think that the author actually meant to refer to Nagakubo’s 1788 Chiky? bankoku sankai yochi zensusetsu [“Map with an account of all the countries, lands, and seas in the world”], later known as Kaisei chiky? bankoku zenzu [“Revised map of all the countries in the world”], also discussed by Unno (410); this popular world map was based on the Chinese publication of Matteo Ricci’s oval world map (1602) and was the ultimate source for many anonymous and undated world maps, just like this one, published in the nineteenth century.

n13. That is, the Polar Regions. The South Pole is clearly grey, but the North Pole is shown in several colors. For example, Europe north of the Arctic Circle is shown in green (i.e., yellow plus grey), while the Arctic islands are in a blue-grey.