Buddhist culture was most active and prosperous in early modern Japan (1600–1868). Buddhist temples were ubiquitous throughout the country, and no one was untouched by Buddhism. Buddhist priests wielded considerable power over the populace, and Shinto was largely subject to Buddhist control. Buddhist culture attained this considerable influence in early modern Japan through the performance of death-related rituals and prayer.
Death-related rituals (also known as funerary Buddhism) were rooted in the nationwide anti-Christian policy of the Tokugawa bakufu that utilized the administrative machinery of Buddhist temples. Using the opportunity provided by the anti-Christian policy, Buddhist temples were able to bind all households to death-related rituals and this, in turn, gave rise to the danka system in which dying a Buddhist soon became the norm in early modern Japan.
Given the rigid social status, mutual surveillance, and highly regulated nature of everyday life in Tokugawa Japan, people through prayer often turned to Buddhist deities to seek divine help for their wishes or ad hoc solutions to worldly problems. Beyond being sites of prayer services, Buddhist temples also served as spaces of learning, relief, and/or leisure, thus catering to people from all walks of life. Both prayer and play were also integral to Buddhist culture in early modern Japanese society.
Japan defined its northern edge against Russia over the course of the 19th century. In earlier periods, an area and people known as Ezo marked the northern edge of Japanese state and society, but expansion of both the Russian and Japanese polities brought them into direct contact with one another around the Sea of Okhotsk. Perceptions of foreign threat accelerated Japan’s efforts to map and know Ezo, and shifted understandings of Japan’s northern edge outwards. Maritime routes defined this new northern edge of Japan, and their traces on the map tied distant locales to the national body.
Maritime space was therefore crucial to this expansion in conceptions of the nation, through which the maritime boundary of Japan came to incorporate much of the Ezo region. The mid-century opening of Japan transformed this maritime boundary, which was shaped in the latter half of the 19th century by Japan’s particular situation, even as global and universal concepts were drawn upon to justify its operation. Japan’s participation within international and inter-imperial society conferred upon it the ability to appeal to such concepts for legitimacy, a participation made possible by the state’s efforts to satisfactorily map and administer the boundaries of Japan’s northern edge.
Since the world in its entirety cannot be grasped through direct experience, world maps are mental constructs that serve as a radiography of a given culture’s attitudes towards its environment. Early modern Japan offers an intriguing study case for the assimilation of a variety of world map typologies in terms of pre-existing traditions of thought. Rather than topography, these maps stress topological connections between “myriad countries” and therefore embody the various mental maps of cultural agents in Japan. The maps’ materiality and embeddedness in social networks reveal connections to other areas of visual and intellectual culture of the period.