By the end of World War I, Japan had completed the most rapid and radical transformation undertaken by any established society in world history. Up to the 1850s, Japan was a culturally sophisticated nation but was by design almost totally cut off from the rest of the world. Its economy was based upon agriculture and traditional crafts and the Japanese people had only a very limited acquaintance with modern technology.
In the 1850s, the Western powers, led by the United States, forced Japan, literally by gunpoint, to open it economy and society to the outside world and international trade. Most foreigners expected that Japan would become some meek colonial vassal, ripe for exploitation; however, they were in for a surprise.
During the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912), the Japanese adapted and, in many cases, greatly improved, Western technology and systems with a speed and competency that astounded all observers. Within a couple of decades Japan had become an ultra-modern industrialized state, in the mold of Western Europe and the United States. Crucially, Japan’s advancement was applied to military technology, whereupon it developed one of the most sophisticated and disciplined armies and navies in the world.
Japan’s new strength imbued it with grander ambitions. A country that had recently been in self-isolation for generations now turned its energies to developing a foreign empire. Japan benefited by the fact that it was always underestimated. The Chinese viewed themselves as inherently superior to the Japanese, and being a much larger country, initially dismissed them as a mere nuisance. Meanwhile, Western powers simply could not believe that an Asian country (read non-White) could ever match them in a military contest.
Japan first shocked the world when it throttled China during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5), taking Korea and Taiwan as its first major prizes for its new empire.
Meanwhile, Russia was expanding aggressively into the Asia Pacific realm, and it became clear that St. Petersburg and Tokyo’s ambitions could not coexist.
Upon the outset of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), Russia confidently assumed that it would easily vanquish Japan. Its great base in China, Port Arthur (today the Lüshunkou District of Dalian), was one on the most heavily fortified places on earth, while the Russian Navy had recently been retooled with ultra-modern vessels, skippered by experienced commanders. However, the ‘impregnable’ city fell to Japan during the Siege of Port Arthur (August 1, 1904 – January 2, 1905), and the Russians utterly lost the land war in Manchuria at the Battle of Mukden (20 February–10 March 1905). If that was not enough, the Japanese navy decimated the main Russian fleet (which had sailed halfway around the world from St. Petersburg) at the Battle of Tsushima (May 27-28, 1905). At the Treaty of Portsmouth (September 5, 1905) that ended the War, Japan became the dominant power in East Asia, and was made the quasi-colonial overlord of Southern Manchuria, while Russia ceded Southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands to Japan.
During the early period of the Taishō Era (1912-26), Japan entered World War I on the side of the Entente Powers (Japan had especially close relations with Britain and the Royal Navy). While not a major combatant, Japan impressed it allies with its highly competent and disciplined conduct, that importantly allowed Britain, and later the United States, to have ‘not worry’ about the conflict in the Asia-Pacific theatre, as Japan ‘had it covered’. Most notably, Japan conquered the major German treaty port of Tsing-tau (today Qingdao, China), during the Siege of Tsing-tao (August 27 – November 7, 1914), dealing a severe blow to the Kaiser’s ego early in the war.
At the Treaty of Versailles (1919), which followed the war, Japan was sat at the victors’ table and for the first time was internationally hailed as one of the global military superpowers and a fully advanced modern, industrial society, worthy of universal respect. Japan’s self-image grew to reflect its new status, a state of affairs that was unimaginable only short time before. It is at this moment that the present map comes into play.
The Present Map in Focus
The present work is a grand and powerful celebration of the Japanese Empire’s new status as a global superpower, employing a vivid pageant of cartography and portraiture to brilliant propagandist effect. While the map seems to be printed on ephemeral, newsprint-style paper, the quality of the design and is stellar, and the colour scheme vivid, while its large and sumptuous woven silk mount and rollers add a certain gravitas.
The map, the kanji title of which translates to a ‘Commemorative Map of the World War’ is occupies the top of the composition on either side of the Japanese imperial symbol of the sixteen-petalled chrysanthemum. The work consists of two main components. The top register, entitled ‘Important Peoples in the Meiji and Taishō Eras’ features a double-hemisphere world map, surrounded by several portraits of both leading Japanese and world figures of the broader period. The pride of place is given to the reigning Taishō Emperor, while other figures include the late Meiji Emperor, Woodrow Wilson, King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Nicholas II, and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, etc., plus various Japanese military commanders. In the lower right corner of the register is view of the Palace of Versailles, where the eponymous treaty was signed. In the lower left corner is a text block listing the ‘Allied’ and ‘Enemy’ powers in the World War I, noting the military strength of each.
The main part of the work, below, is dominated by a detailed map of the Japanese Empire that (including its insets) features all of Metropolitan Japan, as well as Korea, Southern Manchuria, Taiwan, Southern Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands and the southern Japanese chain leading down to Okinawa.
Very interesting details that might at first be overlooked are contained within the white circles on the map, which upon closer look reveal detailed ‘mini-maps’ of Japanese naval and army victories, such as the Battle of Tsushima (showing the courses of the opposing fleets!).
An inset in the middle of the main map depicts an overview of the Asia-Pacific region while above is a World Map, which sets the greater context.
In the upper left corner of the main register are four intriguing insets. The lower inset features a detailed plan of the Siege of Port Arthur, while above is an overview map of Europe show the ‘New Country Lines’, or international boundaries, as mandated by the Versailles Treaty, while higher still are insets detailing the new borders in both Western and Eastern Europe. All considered, the various maps endeavour to show that Japan is not only a major regional power, but a key mover on a global scale.
The publisher of the map is not clear, but it seems that the work was likely commissioned by an official Japanese government agency, as by this time the state had developed a well-funded and highly sophisticated propaganda machine.
Unfortunately, as we all know too well, during the early Shōwa Era (1926-89) Japan became a hyper-military dictatorship and greatly overextended itself, with horrific humanitarian results, during War World War II. This led to the downfall of the Japanese Empire, but also gave birth to a modern, peaceful Japan.
A Note on Editions and Rarity
The present map is extremely rare, which is not surprising, as its fragile nature and large size would have led to a very low survival rate.
The present example is remarkable for its stellar condition, and the presence of its lovely contemporary mount with rollers, which are often the first aspects of such map to perish.
We are aware of two institutional examples (Library of Congress and University of Wisconsin-Madison).