Azuchi-Momoyama- and early Edo-period maps

The ‘four portals’ (yotsu no kuchi 四つの口) in Japan in the Edo period; link to the full screen:

The battles between the 1560s and 1600 were repercussions of a century of warfare and stand in contrast to the subsequent pax tokugawa. The divide between the so-called Azuchi-Momoyama (1573–1603) and Edo periods (1603–1868) is not only reflected in war versus peace, but is also found in other spheres of life: foreign explorations versus permeable isolation – Katō Eiichi contrasts the ‘age of the great voyages’ (daikōkai jidai) with Japan’s ‘national seclusion’ (sakoku) – horizontal alliances versus a hierarchical political order, occupational fluidity and social mobility versus disciplinary control, women’s property rights versus patriarchic family structures, and a culture of pomp versus an ideal of austerity, propagated by the elite.

Yet, political, economic and social transformations were legato rather than staccato. First, the shogunal decrees that proclaimed ‘maritime prohibition’ (kaikin) in the 1630s brought an end to Japan’s participation in the Manila-Acapulco trade. But exchange with the outside world continued throughout the Edo period: Nagasaki received Chinese and Dutch ships; Tsushima Domain oversaw diplomatic and trade relations with Joseon Korea; Satsuma Domain maintained exchange with the Kingdom of Ryūkyū (present-day Okinawa Prefecture) to the south; finally, Matsumae Domain, located at the southern tip of Ezo (present-day Hokkaido), conducted trade with the Ainu to the north.

Second, though the last medieval battles gave rise to the monopolization of law under the Tokugawa shoguns, daimyo preserved their decision-making authority in the provinces. Third, the establishment of castle towns and the sword hunts in the 1570s and 1580s led to the dissolution of warriors from agricultural processes and lay the basis for a status-oriented society, divided into samurai, peasants, artisans and merchants (shi nō kō shō). Nevertheless, merchant and peasant households, some of which had risen to political visibility in the late sixteenth century, retained an important position in the economic and cultural life of the Edo period. In summary, the late-sixteenth-century processes were not only antagonistic to but also a pre-condition to formations of ‘early modernity’: political unification, which promoted domestic economic and social networks and supported the notion of ‘Japan’ as distinct from the outside world, as well as regional and social cleavages, which shaped the identity of the elite in domains and the every-day life of status groups.

Waldseemüller, Martin, Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii alioru[m]que lustrationes (Strasbourg?: 1507), 1 map on 12 sheets ; 128 x 233 cm, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C., URL:

Münster, Sebastian, designer, and Hans Holbein the Younger, artist, Typus cosmograhicus universalis, in Huttich, Johann and Simon Grynaeus, Novus orbis regionum ac insularum veteribus incognitarum, Basileae: apud Io. Hervagium, 1537 (first published 1532), woodcut, 37.2 x 55.7 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, shelfmark: Inv. 1933.278; URL:

Marcus Sandl and Daniel Sidler describe the pictures and images in the map and cite further references in Die Welt auf einem Blatt, link

Sixteenth-century European maps of the world reflect the notion of Japan as a unified country. In fact, the earliest maps in Europe that include Japan, reinforce this notion, by representing Japan as a single island. Japan first appeared in a European map in 1459. Martin Behaim’s (1459–1507) globe and Henricus Martellus' (active 1480–1496) world map of the 1490s include Japan. In the early sixteenth century, Japan occasionally disappeared from maps, because based on Columbus’ accounts, European cartographers identified Japan with the newly discovered islands. Martin Waldseemüller (dead 1520), however, includes Japan in his Universalis cosmographia of 1507. The map shows the island of ‘Zipangri’ to the East of the Eurasian landmass, but locates it closer to America than to East Asia. At the top of the map, Waldseemüller represents the world in two hemispheres. The one to the left, with an image of Ptolemy, shows the old word, that is, Africa and the greater part of the Eurasian continent, whereas the one to the right shows Japan in the middle of the ocean, with the part of East Asia, not yet described by Ptolemy, to the west and America to the east. This hemisphere is framed by Amerigo Vespucci’s image, considered the discoverer of America by Waldeemüller.

Consistently, the typus cosmographicus universalis, attributed to Sebastian Münster (1488–1552) and first published in the Novus orbis regionum of 1532, shows Japan west of the American continent. According to Münster, the representation is meant to help the reader, so that he can more easily imagine the levelled map as a spherical globe. He writes:

If you look at a map or a description of the earth, you will not imagine that the earth’s surface is as flat, as if it were spread on a table; you will think its two extremes as connected on a curved table in the form of a globe: whoever is on the Island of ‘Zipangri’, which you see beyond [New] Spain exposed in the high sea, is similarly close to the extreme shores of India. You can also understand this from the longitudes, which you see drawn around the equator.

Quando igitur mappam seu terrae descriptionem intueris, non imaginaberis superficiem terrae esse sic planam, ut in tabula est proiecta: sed duas eius extremitates recurvata tabula in sphaerae figura cogitabis esse connexas: ut qui est in Zipangri insula, quam vides longe ultra Hispaniam in alto mari expositam, simul sit circa extremas Indiae oras id quod vel ex ipso numero longitudinis, quem circa aequatorem descriptium vides, colligere poteris.

“In tabulam cosmographiae introductio per Sebastianum Münsterum,” in Johann Huttich and Simon Grynaeus, Novus orbis regionum (Basel, 1532); trans. by Salome Egloff.

‘World map,’ woodcut, color, one of three maps in Japan, thought to be based on the original woodblocks of the Kunyu wanguo quantu 坤輿萬國全圖 by Matteo Ricci and Li Zhizao, published in Beijing in 1602, 6 sheets, originally mounted on one folding screen, Kyoto University Library, URL:

Early sixteenth-century Europan cartographers, including Martin Waldseemüller and Sebastian Münster, underestimated the size of the American continent and the extension of the Pacific Ocean. Münster’s map, showing Japan to the west of America, that is to the left of the map, accordingly remained a singular form of representation, because, if applied in a correct scale, it would imply a fragmentation of the Asian continent into two parts (an exception to the rule of preserving the shape of continents in their entirety are maps that focus on ocean routes, such as the America-centered Carte tres curieuse de la Mer du Sud of 1712, held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, or the decentered Crystal Palace Gameproduced around 1855 by Henry Smith Evans and held by the British Library). In contrast, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) created two world maps in China in the late sixteenth century, with the Eurasian landmass and Africa to the west and the Americas to the east. Ricci relied on the maps of Gerard Mercartor (1512–1594), Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) and Petrus Plancius (1522–1622). But these cartographers did not choose a Pacific-centered perspective in their maps. Elmar Holenstein has therefore suggested that Waldseemüller’s hemispheric representation of the Pacific might have served as a source of inspiration. 

Matteo Ricci’s maps are not handed down to us. But the woodblock print of 1602 by the Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) scholar Li Zhizao, with the title ‘world map’ (literally, ‘map of the ten thousand countries of the earth’, C., Kunyu wanguo quantu, J., Konyo bankoku zenzu), is said to be based on Ricci's maps. Like European maps, the map includes latitudes and longitudes. As a special feature, however, place names are translated into Chinese, and East Asia is depicted more precisely than in sixteenth-century European maps. For instance, the map shows the region of present-day Tōhoku and Hokkaido to the north of Japan and the chain of islands in the Kuroshiō strait to the south, which still miss or are less detailed respectively in the maps by Mercator, Ortelius or Plancius. 

‘General world map’ (bankoku sōzu 万国総図), woodcut, color, ([Kyoto:] Hayashi Jisaemon, 1671), National Diet Library Tokyo, URL:

Early Japanese maps that are under the influence of European cartography are so-called ‘nautical charts’, which focus on the Pacific Ocean, and nanban (literally, “Southern barbarians”) world map screens, commissioned by Japanese merchant families, which engaged in foreign trade in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Some of the screens chose the Pacific-centered perspective, which the Jesuit Matteo Ricci introduced to China. In 1645 (Shōhō 2), a Ricci-type ‘general world map’ (bankoku sōzu 万国総図) was first published in print in Nagasaki. Reprints of this map reappeared throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Ishikawa Ryūsen 石川流宣 produced a ‘general world map’ (Bankoku sōkai zu 万国総界図) in 1688, which was reprinted thereafter. Nishikawa Joken 西川如見 (1648–1724) includes a Pacific-centered map in the ‘Thoughts on Trade and Communication with the Civilized and the Barbarians’ (Zōho ka'i tsūshō kō 華夷通商考) of 1709, and Terajima Ryōan 寺島良安 in the popular illustrated encyclopedia of the Wakan sansai zue 和漢三才図会 of 1712, based on the map in his Chinese model of the Sancai tuhui 三才図会 of 1609. 

Early Japanese world maps under the influence of European cartography can be considered works of art rather than scientific products. They fit into the culture of pomp of the Azuchi-Momoyama and early Edo periods and reflect discourse among the samurai elite, which challenged China’s centrality after the fall of the Ming dynasty in the 1640s: the maps represent China as just one among a myriad of countries and place Japan close to their center. Japan's important position in the world is reinforced by illustrations of peoples of the world, sometimes accompanying these maps. Japan is represented first, followed by China and further Asian, European and imaginary peoples. Relevant here is geographical as well as cultural distance to Japan. However, the Ricci-style world maps also show that Japan is not only surrounded by the sea in secure isolation, but also fragile to foreign encroachments from all directions. When Russian, British and American ships increasingly appeared off the coast of Japan in the early nineteenth century, cartography advanced to an instrument to map Japan's coastlines and the northern territories, previously considered beyond the frontiers of Japan, and thus to redefine Japan's boundaries vis-a-vis foreign countries.