This is a stellar example of one of the iconic Japanese maps of the second half of the 19th century, a colossal beautifully rendered woodblock showcasing the world in a double-hemisphere view. It brilliantly captures the Japanese conception of the globe as it stood near the beginning of the Meiji Era, when the country opened itself up to global trade and cross-cultural exchange after having pursued a centuries-long policy of isolation. Employing high quality (primarily German) sources, it was designed by the astronomer Yamaji Yukitaka, assisted by the geographer Shibata Shūzō, fulfilling a commission for the then ruling Shogunate regime, and was published in 1855; the present edition revised and issued sixteen years later by academics at the future University of Tokyo.
Due to its immense size, the map permits a level of detail seldom seen on world maps (labelling many cities, caravan routes, etc.), with even relatively small countries portrayed clearly. Countries are colour coded in a variety of lovely hand painted hues, while the seas are outlined in a blue wash.
In Asia, Japan is shown to possess all of Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands (both disputed with Russia), while Russia had by this time consolidated its place in the Far East. China is shown to embrace its tributary states (ex. Korea, Mongolia), while in Vietnam, France controls only the far south, in advance of its conquest of the entire country in the 1880s. Australia is labeled in copious detail along its coasts; however, the interior remains largely a blank space. Central Asia is shown to still feature independent emirates, like Khiva, before of a wave of Russian conquests.
The depiction of Africa shows an awareness of some recent explorations in the Sahara and Congo River basin, while many other regions (such as the Great Lakes) remain enigmatic, while the European presence is confined to coastal patches, in advance of the ‘Scramble for Africa’. Ethiopia is shown to be an independent state, while the Ottoman reach extends down to Sudan.
In Europe, Italy is show as unified state, although the map’s view is in advance of the unification of Germany (which occurred on January 18, 1870), as while Prussia dominated the north of Germany, the southern states are still shown as independent entities. The Ottomans still control most of the Balkans.
In the Americas, the Unites States is shown to possess Alaska (having purchased it from Russia in 1867), although the U.S-Mexican frontier assumes an archaic (pre-Gadsden’s Purchase) form, even as California’s boundaries are outlined. In Canada, the Arctic Archipelago is still largely an enigma. In South America, Bolivia is shown to still possess its seacoast (which it would lose to Chile in 1883), while Chile and Argentina are yet to conquer their Patagonian hinterlands.
The corners of the overall composition feature four ancillary maps of world from polar perspectives (direct and angular), showing an awareness of Antarctica. The lengthy text below the main map explains the circumstances under which the map was produced.
Japan Opens up to the World and the Creation of the Yamaji-Shibata Map
Even during the Tokugawa Era (1603 – 1868), or Shogunate, when Japan pursued an official policy of national isolation, Japanese academics and officials still maintained an interest in world geography, although their knowledge tended to be limited to whatever sources they were able to acquire from the Dutch who were generally the only foreigners allowed to visit the country.
The Shogun’s Calendar Bureau (also referred to as the Department of Astronomy) was the official agency responsible for the study and regulation of matters of geography and the celestial world, supplying the government with maps and making astronomical observations that could be used to determine the timing of festivals, etc. A breakthrough in the Japanese knowledge of world geography was their decision to create the first Japanese official world map, Shintei bankoku zenzu (dated 1810, but published in 1816), made under the direction of the geographer Takahashi Kageyasu. The map was predicated upon fine but, in some cases, dated Western sources, but nevertheless gave the Shogunate a decent working knowledge of the outside world. Due the country’s continued isolation the regime saw no need to replace the map, as least for some decades.
The American intervention in Japan, coming in the form of Commodore Perry’s 1853 visit, compelled the country to open itself up to international trade. This event shocked the Japanese establishment, forcing them to adapt to the new reality that continued isolationism was not an option. With alacrity Japanese officials sought to gain the best knowledge of foreign lands.
Importantly, in 1855, they Shogunate commissioned Yamaji Yukitaka, the head of the Calendar Bureau, to create an entirely new official Japanese map of the world. Yamaji was assisted by Shibata Shūzō (1820 -1859), a brilliant young geographer who had recently created his own highly regarded world map, Shintei kon’yo ryakuzenzu (1852). Highly intelligent and resourceful, Yamaji sought out and competently edited the best European sources for this ambitious work. White he citied various English, French and Dutch works as supplementary sources, his main inspiration came from German cartography, primarily the maps within Karl Sohr and Friedrich Handtke’s Vollständiger Hand-Atlas der neueren Erdbeschreibung über alle Theile der Erde in 80 Blättern (Glogau: Carl Flemming, 1846); this source is mentioned in the explanatory text on the map. This represents an important and early transference of German geographical knowledge to Japan, an intellectual nexus that would later become highly consequential.
The result of Yamaji and Shibata’s collaboration was the publication of the first edition of the present map in 1855 (Ansei 2). The colossal work was considered a tour de force by the Japanese establishment. It capped of a long an illustrious career for Yamaji and saw Shibata’s appointment as the head of the Shogun’s new Institute of Western Studies (Bansho Shirabesho), in 1856, although sadly he would not enjoy his new status long, due to his premature death at only the age of 39.
During the 1860s, the Shogunate fell, to be replaced by the Meiji regime (1868 – 1912), an activist, modernizing government responsible directly to the emperor. While the old order reluctantly interacted with the outside world, the Meiji enthusiastically embraced foreign affairs, leading the country on the most radical and rapid socio-economic transformation of any place in world history, before or since. The Meiji years saw Japan go from an isolated agrarian society into a hyper-industrialized, ultra-modern military state, and a great player in global trade. The academic establishment in the Meiji Era thirsted for experience of foreign lands, and immense strides were made in geographic knowledge and mapmaking.
It seemed fitting that the in the early years of the Meiji Era, the Yamaji-Shibata map, one of the greatest works of the former regime with a global scope, was revived and modernized to epitomize the current conception of the globe. It was in this context that the map was revised by academics at the future University of Tokyo and published in 1871 (Meiji 4). While like the 1855 edition in most respects, the new map added many new place names, updated international boundaries and used resplendent colours to code national entities and colonial possessions. This new edition was likewise highly regarded, and the map was reissued in 1874.
The present map set the gold standard for the Japanese mapping of the world. Over the coming years, Japan’s interactions with foreign countries increased, as did its access to modern scientific methods and analytical approaches to geography. Thus, by the end of the Meiji Era, Japan was a world leader in earth sciences, making many of its own innovations and discoveries, which were emulated by Westerners, instead of it just being the other way around.
A Note on Rarity
All the three editions of the Yamaji-Shibata map seem to be similarly rare. Of the present 1871 edition, we can trace 3 institutional examples, held by the National Diet Library, Yokohama City University Library and the Library of New South Wales. We are aware of only a single other example of the map as appearing on the market in recent years.
References: National Diet Library: ネ040-27; Yokohama City University: WC-0/58; Library of New South Wales; OCLC: 999619966; Takeshi MORIYAMA, ‘Mapping the World in Bakumatsu Japan’, Japan Review, no. 35 (2020), pp. 113-140, esp. pp. 127-9; KAZUTAKA Unno, ‘Cartography in Japan’, in J. B. Harley and David Woodward (eds.), The History of Cartography, Vol. II: Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies (Chicago, 1994), pp. 442-3.