Isolated Japan Maps the Forbidden Outside World

Centuries of isolation left the Japanese with limited knowledge of world geography

For two centuries after 1640, the official Japanese policy towards the outside world was known as sakoku (‘closed country’), by which both Japanese leaving the country and foreigners entering it could expect the death penalty.


Although in practice not quite as harshly absolute as that, isolationism prevailed until American commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Fleet sailed into Uraga harbour in 1853, forcing Japan to open up, first to commerce with the U.S., later to trade with other western countries.

This Japanese world map circa 1850, gives an impression of the country’s view of its place in the world on the verge of its forced reintegration into the international community. It is an intriguing mix of foreign knowledge and native perspective.

The Japanese archipelago is placed self-confidently at the centre of the map, banishing Europe from its usual central place to a marginal one, at the western edge. The American continent is shoved to the map’s far eastern side.

The continents, each assigned a different colour, are generally in the right position vis-a-vis each other, but their contours are very poorly rendered, as if the map was not drawn directly from a contemporary western example, but via a system of Chinese whispers.

  • Europe is an elongated mess, the Black Sea landlocked, the Greek peninsula melted, the British Isles fragmented into multiple rocks. The continent’s jagged northwestern shores have smoothed out to an almost straight line from Biarritz to Hamburg.
  • Africa is intersected by giant rivers morphing into two fabulous (and fabulated) inland seas; South Africa’s Natal region is placed on its own island. Madagascar has bent out of shape, its northern cape aiming at a clutter of too-large islands.
  • the Red Sea is coloured red, but the Arabian peninsula is coloured in as part of Europe – not to mention triangle-shaped. The Indian subcontinent (which actually is triangle-shaped) is rendered as a tired, sagging lump of land, much smaller than the huge land mass of neighbouring Indochina.
  • Unless one generously discerns the St Lawrence River in the giant wound gaping in North America’s eastern side, that continent shows hardly any resemblance to its actual shape (South America is shown much more realistically).
  • By 1850, the British were busy colonising Australia, but this map still presupposed the area to be barely visited, showing it as a confused, semi-discovered muddle of land, attached to the Southland – the mythical Terra Australis Incognita of ancient – western – lore.
  • However flawed it may be, what this map proves by getting the general gist of the world’s geography right,  is that Japan was not entirely cut off from outside knowledge. Indeed, during the whole period of sakoku, severely restricted but nonetheless significant trading and other contacts were maintained with a handful of privileged partners.

    The Dutch, who were allowed to maintain a foothold on the small island of Deshima, were Japan’s main source for western scientific knowledge, including cartography. This allowed Japan to keep up with the general development of geography, even if sometimes, as in this case, only very generally.

    Many thanks to An Olaerts for providing me with this link to a series of antique Japanese world maps.

     Strange Maps #400

    Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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