Journey to the Past with these Illustrious Old Maps of Japan
by Anna Jamieson | ART
For anyone who has been lucky enough to spend time around antique maps, you’ll appreciate the intrinsic beauty that geographical and territorial maps possess. As Europeans began to sail the globe in the 16th and 17th centuries, their maps tell a fascinating story of how they came to understand other lands. These exquisite old maps of Japan reveal the ways western sailors and cartographers gradually learnt about the country.
Read on to find out how Japan first appeared to Europeans through these 6 rare and unforgettable maps.
1. First Western Map of Japan
This simple diagram by Benedetto Bordone dating from 1528 is the first map of Japan printed in a Western manuscript, and draws on the written account of Marco Polo, as no European had visited Japan at the time. Of course, this map bears no resemblance to how Japan actually looks, but if you consider that it’s actually supposed to portray just the main island of Honshu, then you can start to see the similarities. However, there’s something very evocative and powerful about its simple lines and sketchy mountains. Bordone’s cartography is unusual as it combines conventional and maritime cartography: the representation of settlements echo land maps, while the coastlines are in the style of nautical charts.
2. Advances in Cartography
This vibrant map feels more familiar to the modern viewer, perhaps because it includes a vivid blue sea. This antique map of Japan by Abraham Ortelius was first published in the Dutch atlas Additamentum Quintum in 1595. The map shows three of the main islands of Japan, omitting the island of Hokkaido, which wouldn’t be settled until much later. The southern island of Kyushu (portrayed in yellow) is clearly shown as a separate island and the relative size of Shikoku is significantly more accurate than previous maps, showing a steady advance in the science of cartography.
3. First-hand Knowledge of Japan
One of the highlights of the collection, this 1617 Portuguese map of Japan by Christopher Blancus and Inacio Moreira was one of the most accurate representations of Japan at the time of engraving, and is the only known example of this rare antique map. In contrast to the previous two examples, which relied on second-hand accounts, Moreira visited Japan himself at least twice at the end of the sixteenth century. He is celebrated for rendering the size and shape of the Japanese islands more precisely than anyone in Europe had done before. With extensive place names and meticulous labeling, the map shows how rapidly Europeans had begun to accumulate knowledge of Asian geography.
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4. Asian Sources
This 1655 map by Joan Blaeu appears simpler than the others initially, but seems to take its cue from Blancus and Moreira’s more familiar rendering of the shape of Japan we all know and love. This map was printed in the Atlas Sinensis, the first Western atlas devoted to China and the surrounding region. The Atlas Sinensis drew on several Chinese sources to render a much more detailed and accurate map of China than had been seen before in Europe. However, Blaeu still did not have access to similar sources from Japan, which can be seen by the lack of text in this otherwise confident chart of the Japanese coast
5. Japan at the Edge of the Globe
This elaborate antique map of the Indian Ocean by Hendrik Doncker was published in or before 1664. The intricate criss-cross of geometric shapes and lines reveals the wider focus of the collection it belonged to. This rare first edition of the exquisite sea chart is one of the earliest maps to show the newly acquired knowledge of Dutch sailors in Australia: previously Europeans had had no proof of any land that far south, despite belief in a mythical Terra Australis at the South Pole. Not only extremely decorative, it is also important historically; it is one of the few large scale charts focusing on Asian seas printed in Amsterdam.
While the coasts of the Indian Ocean look almost as they do on a modern globe, take a look at the islands of Japan in the top right. The inaccuracy of scale and detail in comparison with the oceanic center show the lack of European knowledge of Japan at the time, when to them it was still an unknown quantity at the edge of the world.
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6. Japanese Sources
With a completely different scale and feel, this map of the Imperium Japonicum, the Empire of Japan, was published by Adriaan Reland in 1715. This highly detailed and intricate map divides Japan into 66 kingdoms, each labeled with their Japanese name. As foreigners were not permitted to enter Japan at the time, it is evident that Reland’s depiction is based almost entirely on Japanese sources; an unusual step for a European mapmaker. The only part taken from western sources is the inset showing Nagasaki, decorated with the crests of Japanese noble families.
These antique maps of Japan are taken from the Jason C. Hubbard collection. You can find out more at Daniel Crouch Rare Books.
Do you have any antique maps of Japan? We'd love to hear from you! Leave us a comment below!