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Japanese Maps Collection launches on Manchester Digital Collections

A varied collection of Japanese maps, including maps of Japan, world maps, road maps, and different types of local maps, is now available on Manchester Digital Collection.

People in the Edo period (1603-1868) knew their way around Japan.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, the ruling Tokugawa family chose to protect political stability (and their own power) by establishing tight restrictions on movement, both within Japan and across borders. Some of the initial restrictions were progressively eased, but, throughout the period, people of all social standing in Japan remained eager to find ways to virtually explore their country and the surrounding world.

Maps and other topographical works were one way to do that. In order to facilitate territorial control, the Tokugawa and other local authorities periodically ordered land surveys, which resulted in the production of administrative maps. A growing publishing industry capitalized on them, as well as on older manuscript maps, and this resulted in a wealth of commercial maps, created specifically for distribution to the public. The maps didn’t exclusively serve practical purposes, and they weren’t necessarily inspired by notions of “objective” or “scientific” representation. They nonetheless stimulated a new, widespread geographical conscience in Japan. They marked the birth of a proper cartographic culture – of a mapped society, in the context of an increasingly  mapped world.

The recently launched Japanese Maps Collection in Manchester Digital Collections (MDC) is a rich mirror of this wealth of cartographic content. It covers an ample variety of locations, and provides instances of all the main map categories that were produced in the Edo period.

One example are commercial maps of Japan, which began to circulate around the mid-seventeenth century. The one below (Japanese 123) was an innovative map produced by the Confucian scholar Nagakubo Sekisui (1717-1801) in the eighteenth century – the first to use a grid of latitude and longitude and a fixed scale to represent Japan.

Kaisei Nihon yochi rotei zenzu (Revised complete route map of Japan), Japanese 123

Nagakubo was involved in Western Studies, was interested in European standards of cartography, and worked to put Japan in relation with a wider world. The same interest in putting Japan in context is reflected in world maps, such as the one below (Japanese 118a), produced by the cartographer Mitsukuri Shōgo (1821-1846) in 1844.  

Shinsei yochi zenzu (A new and complete map of the world), Japanese 118a

The map, partly based on a 1835 French chart, is remarkable for its attention to borders and power relations between states. This reflects a growing preoccupation about foreign relations, at a time when Japan was about to be projected on the stage of global diplomacy, with the signing of commercial treaties with the United States and European powers.

Not only the global was mapped, but the local too. The Japanese Maps Collection offers examples of provincial and regional maps, city maps, road maps, and maps of sacred areas. The following work (Japanese 29), by Akiyama Nagatoshi (active 1842-1843), is a sum of many of those map types.

Fujimi jūsanshū yochi zenzu (Map of the thirteen provinces from which Mount Fuji is visible), Japanese 29

Published in 1842, it is titled Fujimi jūsanshū yochi zenzu (Map of the thirteen provinces from which Mount Fuji is visible), and represents an area corresponding roughly to the Kantō region. Mount Fuji is its central theme. By the end of the Edo period, the mountain, a long-revered religious site, had evolved into a cultural icon, at the centre of a thriving travel industry, and was a common object of representation, both in art and cartography. This map worked at the same time as a route map, a regional map, and a provincial map – and even as a very stylized city map for Edo (former Tokyo, which appears, highlighted in red, in the right section). It shows the borders and names of provinces and districts, castle cities, villages, highways, checkpoints, post stations, lakes, rivers and mountains, as well as temples and shrines and other tourist spots such as hot springs, historical sites and meisho (famous places).

Not all maps looked like maps. Or rather, not all maps looked like what in Europe we would conceive as a map. Many Edo period maps were at least partially (and sometimes heavily) pictorial in nature. An example is the following representation of Edo (Japanese 99), which we tentatively titled Edo meisho e (Illustration of the famous places of Edo).

[Edo meisho e] (Illustration of the famous places of Edo), Japanese 99

This pictorial map was published probably in 1803 and is an aerial view of the city, as seen from the direction of Honjo, in present-day Sumida Ward. Drawn in single-point perspective, it captures the city in a single glance, and provides a wealth of information about noteworthy spots. It highlights the nature of Edo as a city of water and greenery that made ingenious use of its river and ocean resources.

Most maps in the new MDC Japanese Maps Collection are dated from the Edo period, and are in Japanese. There are, however, a few exceptions. One is the following map (MGS Folded: D20 [105]) titled Map of Japan for Tourists, published by the Welcome Society of Japan in 1897.

Map of Japan for Tourists, MGS Folded: D20 [105]

The Welcome Society or Kihinkai was created in 1893, with its main office in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, by a group of Japanese businessmen, members of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Most of them had been involved in diplomatic activity and had connections with the Japanese government. The Society (a prelude to the creation, in 1912, of the Japan Tourist Bureau, one of the earliest National Tourist Offices in the world) was meant to attract foreign visitors (to bring foreign cash to Japan), to support the improvement of tourist facilities in Japan, to foster connections between foreign dignitaries and noblemen and Japanese gentlemen, and to produce guidebooks and maps for the use of foreign visitors. This map, printed for English speaking tourists, is a fascinating mirror to the Society’s commercial and diplomatic strategies.

MDC collections are produced in collaboration by curators, researchers, the Imaging team, the Digital Technologies team, and the Collection Management team.

The new Japanese Maps MDC Collection is a work in progress, and new items are being progressively uploaded. We hope it will allow students, researchers, and lovers of maps to explore the variety and beauty of the Japanese maps at the University of Manchester Library, and to virtually travel, themselves, in Edo Japan.

The Japanese Maps MDC Collection can be accessed here:

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 794595

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