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Monday, March 7, 2016

Japanese Curiosity And Maps

The Japanese, historically, are a curious people to me.

Not... not curious where one needs to know about things and surroundings, but rather curious because they weren't curious.

Although there have been maps made in Japan since the 6th century AD, those maps detailed plots of land - who owned what, and where - and were used by wealthy landowners to get a handle on their possessions.

There were also maps made of cities and various ports... but again, it was for the use of the high-end mucky-muck.

But Japan's place in the world - no curiosity.

The physical geographical shape of Japan - no curiosity.

That's what I find curious.

Surely some Japanese person was curious to try and map out how large and diverse the country was at some point in time in Japan's long and glorious history?

If there was, the job was either never completed or never started.

No Japanese Emperor or Shogun ever bothered to undertake the job of determining what their country looked like.

Is that laziness? A lack of funds? Not knowing how to go about doing it? Or, no one ever wondered what the hell Japan actually looked like?

Which answer is true, and which answer doesn't make Japan look too bad?

I have no idea. This is all just theory thought up by me as I sit here on a sunny Saturday afternoon wondering what I should write about. Maps, curiosity and Japan. That's what I came up with.

Japan did not have a good look at itself until it began doing trade with the Dutch and the Portuguese - once this planet's great adventurers... two small countries with curiosity on the brain - this was around the back end of the 16th century (1550AD +)... as these traders were allowed to deal with Japan so long as it was only through Nagasaki.

Now... no one is 100 per cent sure, but the age of Japanese curiosity may have been piqued when Francis Xavier arrived around 1550AD, when he told the Japanese that the Earth is an orb - and not flat.

At some point in time between 1550 and 1583, Japanese daimyo (lord) Nobunaga Oda (surname first) received one of the first ever globes to arrive in Japan. The first accurate (such as it was) Japanese-produced globe was made in 1690AD... which altered the Buddhist notions of cosmology to match actual physical geography.

It was the Dutch and the Portuguese who gave Japan a true look of what their country looked like. And yet, it still took until 1645AD for a real western-style map to be made in Japan, in Nagasaki.

At the very top, is a map of Japan from 1655 - accurate? Close... the shape is wrong, but it is a fairly good representation. Still... if I was just shown that land mass, even I would have a difficult time in stating for sure that it was Japan.

Here's a more modern look at what Japan looks like:

Where was Japanese curiosity until then? 

Granted the Japanese became curious of westerners when its borders were opened up in the 1850s... but still... no curiosity about its own land?

Obviously things have changed since then... Japan is a as curious as the next country... still, it shows how insular the country was... and even why, to some degree, it remains insular to this day.

Of course... I'm just asking questions and wondering why... anyone have any theories to expound or shoot down my curious thoughts?

Andrew Joseph


  1. Just winging this. According to the Kuniumi, the gods created the heaven and the earth and the eight islands of Japan. With little contact outside of China and Korean and little desire to emphasize either, the culture would tend to look in rather than out. When you live on a divinely created island, a literal Eden then why be concerned about the outside?

    Then the population doubled and things got interesting.

    1. Ha! That's an interesting take... anything I write about it has to be taken with a grain of salt because I am ultimately a curious person.
      I would imagine, that in the history of Japan, there had to be curious people too, who wondered what things looked like and why things were the way they were, regardless of one's spiritual upbringing.
      If no one was curious, that in itself speak wonders about an inward-looking country.
      But... I have a difficult time imagining a place where curiosity did not exist.
      I know, it exhibited itself in different ways... but still... even after being shown maps and globes, it took nearly a century before any Japanese person decided to see if they could improve on it... or did they meekly assume the world looked the way the gaijin said it looked? If so... did the Japanese look upon the ways of Europeans et al as something akin to superior? Is that why they wanted to limit contact with them? Oh to have been a 500-year-old fly on the wall.