It was at the beginning of the 17th century that Japanese scholars first began to articulate the notion that a model for political order might be found in the natural and physical world. Emerging from something like a medieval way of thinking and entering one much more politically conscious, Japan — repeating a pattern experienced by all cultures — defined “self” for reasons of governance.
At the beginning of that era of hopeful unification known as the Tokugawa period, even highly educated people had very loose notions of what it meant to call oneself “Japanese,” since there was no singular concept of “nation” or “state.” By the middle of this period, however, there was enough material available to conjure up images of something called “our realm” (honcho), the “entire country” (zenkoku) or “great Japan” (Dai Nihon).
Marcia Yonemoto has given us a history of this waking to the possibility of changing representations of “Japan,” a political process that is still going on. She does this through a meticulous examination of the means — from the earliest cartography (various maps of Japan, all of them partial), through a new kind of travel writing that was based on the cartography, then on to fictive accounts based on the original travel writing.
Using relevant period publications Yonemoto delves into the assumptions of each of the means and reveals the uses to which they may have been put. Maps of Japan, for example, were early recognized as conveyors of real power. The Tokugawa authorities kept close watch and punished those who would have exported them. They were also used to navigate a number of worlds besides the physical — those social and political, for example.
By the late 17th century a whole set of visual and verbal conventions characterizing Japan had begun to take shape — first in presumed physical representation of maps, and then in travel accounts that were based on map usage. Maps, the author says, “tend to homogenize different types of information by conveying it in a single graphic dimensions,” while travel accounts, she continues “amplify spatial and cultural difference by describing it in detail.” Travel accounts became a new kind of mapping in which a description of space contributed to the understanding of the variations in culture across space and time.
This narrative, once “annotated,” could enlighten or edify, or both. Cartography and ethnography could be tools of discovery or means of repression. Scholars could thus put geography to work and make it reflect the environment as a text, one that would (if the scholar was Confucian) articulate the essence of a natural and moral order — something a paternalistic government always finds a use for.
As the Tokugawa period deepened, this narrating of Japan found a way to not only describe but categorize differences, to place them in an orderly manner within a larger hierarchical scheme often called “civilization.” And, as the author points out, this “labeling of people as ‘poor’ in quality or not ‘normal’ makes an important shift in perspective from observer to critic, from one who describes to one who defines culture.”
The history of mapping is a history of ideas. And these ideas are for use. One need only glance at the travel section of any Japanese bookstore today to see that “these linkages are alive and well in the language of modern tourism.” Conventionalized representations of timeworn routes and tours still advise where to take the historical walk and what famous local productions to buy. However, we are at the same time to note that simple mapping is quite different from cartography, that geography itself is not an essential ideological ingredient. It depends upon the use it is put to. It is the intention to wield power and sometimes to deceive that, created by the various means outlined in this interesting book, produces “the shared illusion of seamless incorporation that characterizes the garment of modern Japanese nationalism.”
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