No.116 A Witness to History

A photographic introduction to items from the collection

World Maps in Early - Modern Japan

Broadly speaking, there were three categories of world map in Edo-period Japan. The oldest of these was the Buddhist map, which continued to be produced during this period in line with pre-existing tradition. The second type of world map was inspired by Matteo Ricci's Great map of Ten Thousand Countries which reached Japan from China in the early Edo period, and the third category was the Dutch-type world map which emerged in the mid Edo period based on Dutch scholarship. Although each new type of map took centre stage when it first appeared, production continued in all these categories until the end of the Edo period. In other words, maps based on each of these three quite different worldviews coexisted in early-modern Japan.

Figure 1 Shumisen-gizu (A Representation of Mount Sumeru), detail, first half of the 19th century. Museum Collection. Figure 2 Map of Nansenbushu (Jambu-dviipa), late Edo period. Museum Collection.

In Buddhist philosophy, a giant mountain called Mount Sumeru (Shumisen) was believed to stand at the centre of the world. The map in figure 1 shows a 3-D model (Shumisen-gi) of the Buddhist world organized around Mount Sumeru. The huge mountain of Sumeru towers up in the centre, enclosed by a series of eight concentric oceans and mountain ranges. The outermost of these, called Tecchisen (Cakravada Mountain), is located at the very edge of the world, and in the ocean just inside it (i.e. the outermost ocean) islands are depicted to the north, south, east and west of Mount Sumeru respectively. Of these four islands the one to the south of centre, shaped like an inverted triangle (to the lower right of Mount Sumeru in figure 1), is Nansenbushu (Jambu-dviipa) where human beings reside. Portrayal of Nansenbushu is essential to all Buddhist world maps. The oldest extant example is the 14th century Gotenjiku-zu in the Horyuji collection, but maps in this lineage continued to be produced through the Edo period. The Map of Nansenbushu in figure 2 is one such example. Looking at the inverted triangle shape denoting the Indian Subcontinent we can see the Himalayan Mountains indicated in the central area, and so that tract of land clearly represents India (Tenjiku). In the far northeast corner of this continent we can see China (Shintan) and in the eastern sea at the very edge of the map, the island of Japan.

Figure 3 Great Map of Ten Thousand Countries (reproduction to original appearance),
1602. Museum Collection. Original: Miyagi prefectural library.
Figure 4 Detail from the Great Map of Ten Thousand Countries showing Japan and its surrounding area (reproduction).

It was in the early Edo period when this Buddhist worldview was widespread, that the Great Map of Ten Thousand Countries (figures 3 and 4) was brought to Japan, replete with geographical knowledge that the Europeans had acquired during their Great Age of Navigation. This map was the work of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci who updated and added to late 16th century European maps, translated his finished work into Chinese, and published it in Peking in 1602. Ricci's Great Map of Ten Thousand Countries inspired a considerable number of similar publications in Japan in subsequent years. One of the most notable of these, which ran to many editions and was widely distributed, was Nagakubo Sekisui's Kaisei Chikyu Bankoku Zenzu (Revised World Map, figure 5). This map gives a relatively realistic presentation of the world's landmasses, specifically presenting Africa and Europe, which did not appear on the Map of Nansenbushu. However, at the South Pole is the fictional, unexplored continent of Magellanica which people had visualized since ancient times, and the North Pole also contains a strange array of islands.

Figure 5 Kaisei Chikyu Bankoku Zenzu (Revised World Map), late 18th century. Museum Collection. Figure 6 Chikyu-zu (Map of the Earth), 1792. Museum Collection.

In the mid Edo period Dutch studies took hold in Japan, bringing with them new geographical knowledge and the latest world maps incorporating this knowledge, and the Japanese soon began producing maps based on Dutch sources. Shiba Kokan's Map of the Earth (figure 6) was the first of these to be published: here the fictional continent of Magellanica was reduced in area, whilst countries such as New Guinea and Australia were included for the first time. By the time of the Shintei Bankoku Zenzu (Newly Revised World Map, figure 7) of 1810, Magellanica had completely disappeared. This map, produced by the government's chief astronomer and cartographer (tenmongata) Takahashi Kageyasu, was one of the first to include Mamiya Rinzo's recent discoveries in the far north of Japan, and is an epoch-making achievement of international significance. It also shows some uniquely Japanese characteristics such as the left-right reversal of the conventional positions of the eastern and western hemispheres to place Japan at the centre of the world map. This map was subsequently revised by a later tenmongata, Yamaji Yukitaka, and published as 'Jutei Bankoku Zenzu' (World Map with Major Revisions, figure 8). Following further amendments at Daigaku Nanko (now Tokyo University) it became one of the standard reference maps of the early Meiji period.

Figure 7 Shintei Bankoku Zenzu (Newly Revised World Map), 1810. Museum Collection. Figure 8 Jutei Bankoku Zenzu (World Map with Major Revisions), 1855. Museum Collection.

History Department, National Museum of Japanese History
Hiroo Aoyama