Japanese Cartography of the Edo Period


Nansenbushu bankoku shoka no zu

Kal Tsu Shou Kou, Woodblock Print, 1708

This map was made by the Buddhist monk, Zuda Rokashi, also known as Rokashi Hotan, who updated Buddhist cartography to include Europe and America. Previous Buddhist maps did not include the West at all, and Africa, the small island in the western sea, is called, “Land of Western Women.” Although there were a few Eurocentric maps floating around in Japan at the time, Rokashi clearly did not copy them. Lake Anavatapta is depicted prominently in the center, as it was believed to be the place where Queen Maya first envisioned the Buddha and the center of the universe. This map represents the author’s reconciliation between contemporary geography and Buddhist culture, which persisted in Japan during the Edo, against European, Neo-Confucian and Nativist cosmologies. In the top left corner is Rokashi’s list of the many works he consulted. Although it includes encyclopedias, histories, commentaries, Buddhist sutras, Chinese dynastic histories, dictionaries, geographic compendia, literary works and gazetteers, it does not name one very certain source; a seventeenth-century version of a fourteenth-century painting of the journey of Xuanzang. Xuanzang was a Chinese pilgrim who traveled through India and Central Asia during the seventh century, and recorded his experiences in the Great Tang Record of the Western Regions. The fourteenth-century painting is the earliest known Japanese world map. The seventeenth-century map is an updated version, which relied heavily on a Ming encyclopedia and Japanese editions of Matteo Ricci’s maps of Europe.

Rokashi’s title translates to “A Map of the Myriad Countries of Jambudvipa Like a Fruit Held in the Hand.” “Fruit Held in the Hand” is a Buddhist phrase, meaning something that is simple to understand. Rokashi asserted, “If Buddhist scholars do not examine this map when they consult the sutras, their investigations will be incomplete.”

[Western Japan , Seto Inland Sea]

Anonymous, Manuscript, 1814

This Japanese scroll stretches over twenty feet, detailing the coasts and landscapes, castles, shrines and towns. Japanese maps tended to be much larger than European maps of the same era. Many of them were designed to be laid out on wooden floor mats. Created for the purpose of tracking economic activity by region, it notes the annual taxes for each community. It also notes Nagasaki as the only port available to Dutch and Chinese traders. This hand drawn map was crafted in the traditional, pictorial style, known during this period as ezu; the mountains, rolling hills, villages, fortresses, temples, are highly stylized.

Chikyu Bankoku Sankai Yochi Zenzu

Seii Sato, Manuscript, 1821

In 1602, Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary, presented a hand-drawn map of the world to the Wanli Emperor of China. Almost two centuries later, in 1785 Sekisui Nagakubo, a Japanese scholar, drew his own version. Not only was it one of the first world maps published in Japan, it was also one of the most influential, and soon became the source for many other Japanese maps. The revolutionary use of latitude and longitude transformed Japanese mapmaking thereafter. Small versions were printed and circulated through the popular market, but large hand-drawn manuscripts were sold to the wealthy for large sums. Seii Sato, author of this derivation, declared in the top margin, “Since people doubt if the earth is really a sphere, to prove it, this map was drawn as if looking at the globe from a high place.” This is an example of the chokan-zuho technique, or “bird’s-eye view,” a perspective we are quite familiar with in the west. The map continues to describe the world and all its people. Nagakubo kept most of the descriptions in Ricci’s words, however, he did not not include one about the Japanese people, which read, “The Japanese are warriors giving great importance to weapons, but don’t appreciate intellectual activities.”

[Japanese World Map]

Kanoku Yochi Sankai Zusetsu, Engraving, 1850.

Another derivation of Nagakubo’s manuscript, this hand-colored engraving was produced during the final years of the Edo Period. For a complete translation click here.

Suhara-Ya Edo, Japan

Yamashiroya Masakichi and Fujiya Kichizo, Woodblock Print, 1854.

During the end of the Edo Period, Rangaku, or “Dutch Learning,” dominated Japanese art and science. This map exemplifies the union of Japanese traditional printmaking and Dutch cartography. The latter half of the Edo Period is known as the Bakumatsu Era, when traditional feudal authorities resisted the increasing western influence, creating a tense social division. This map is made up of individual woodcut prints on rice paper, layered together for durability. It represents the historical, social and political characteristics of the Bakumatsu era. At the center of Edo, present-day Tokyo, three chrysanthemum flowers mark the emperor’s throne. The flower is a symbol of the head of state and the Japanese legal authority. Within the central living quarters, there is a Western circle called nishinomaru. The royal living quarters are surrounded by a group of mansions, called the daimyo-koji, or “warlord ally.” The relationship between spatial orientation and hierarchy is very clear, as all of the surrounding structures face the Chrysanthemum Throne.