Isolated Japan Maps the Forbidden Outside World
Centuries of isolation left the Japanese with limited knowledge of world geography
From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.
While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.
"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".
A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are university safe spaces killing intellectual growth?
Our experience of time may be blinding us to its true nature, say scientists.
- Time may not be passing at all, says the Block Universe Theory.
- Time travel may be possible.
- Your perception of time is likely relative to you and limited.
From questionable shipwrecks to outright attacks, they clearly don't want to be bothered.
- Many have tried to contact the Sentinelese, to write about them, or otherwise.
- But the inhabitants of the 23 square mile island in the Bay of Bengal don't want anything to do with the outside world.
- Their numbers are unknown, but either 40 or 500 remain.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.