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.
When the coalition government composed of the Tokugawa shoguns and daimyō set about to give visual expression to the entire territory under its rule, it chose to produce enormous hand-drawn maps of each of Japan’s provinces, which corresponded to administrative spatial divisions that had been established by the government in the ancient period on the model of China. These maps followed the example of political maps being produced in China at the time, and systematically deployed icons representing a centralized order based on administrative and military organizations were embedded in the landscape and topography of the provinces. While basing itself on the style of Chinese political maps, the shogunate devised its own distinctive methods of spatial representation. Countless villages, corresponding to the primary financial base for the shoguns and daimyō, were inserted in the form of geometrical icons into the hierarchical order of provinces and their subdivisions in the form of districts. Recorded on each of these village icons were the village’s official name and its official rice yield as agreed on by the shogun and daimyō. In addition, the shogunate did its utmost to gain a fresh grasp of the borders of each province. The shoguns and daimyō were able to produce such maps because the leaders of local village communities possessed the knowledge and surveying techniques that made it possible for them to submit maps able to meet the demands of the shogun and daimyō. In the eighteenth century, the eighth shogun created a hand-drawn map of Japan by combining these provincial maps. But around the same time, from the eighteenth century onwards, the world of the Pacific Ocean surrounding Japan was undergoing considerable change. There arose a need for reliable coastal maps that could be shown to Western nations. For Japan, making this kind of map available to international society meant asserting the extent of its national territory. Amidst attempts to find ways to build a modern form of national territory and moves to represent it visually to international society, maps of Japan’s national territory, different from provincial maps and past maps of Japan, were beginning to take shape. The driving force behind the creation of these new maps was a private intellectual’s desire for knowledge, while those who accurately understood the meaning of making public maps of national territory in the context of the international situation in the nineteenth century and made the shogunate face the implications of this were not the shogun’s senior statesmen but intellectuals and technical experts employed at the shogunate’s institute for Western studies. The shogunate exhibited a new woodblock-printed map of Japan at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris and presented copies to leading figures in Europe. The shogunate wished to proclaim to Europe that he himself was Japan’s ruler. But after Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the fifteenth and last shogun, surrendered his position as shogun and was defeated in battle, the political order centered on the Tokugawa family finally collapsed.