Bankoku Sōkaizu: Situating Japan in a Global Setting

The Bankoku Sōkaizu is an early map of the world, created by Ishikawa Ryūsen at the beginning of the 18th century. Georgia Horstmen has done a wonderful write up explaining the details, influences, and historical background surrounding the creation of the map (2016). I would like to take this opportunity to expand a bit further on some of the topics she has covered, as well as look at a couple of closer details the map has to offer to its viewers.



My Map_Ships
A Qing China ship on the left, and a Japanese ship on the right.

Why do we need this? This is an important question to understand before looking into any type of material culture, in this case it would be maps. In modern day, they may help us locate business or a landmark, or they can help us find our way home. Maps situate ourselves into a greater scope than that of what we can see. In Tokugawa Japan, the Bankoku Sōkaizu did just that, at the global level. However, when it was produced in 1708, Japan was in the middle of tight restrictions and extremely limited contact with the outer world. In this context, why would Japan care about the outside world at all? It is exactly these policies, and worries about the foreigners ruining the unity of Japan, that a world map would need to be created for potentially defensive measures in the case of retaliation for kicking out previous travelers. Placing Japan in a global context develops strategic understanding of where vulnerabilities may be, and allows the governing Tokugawa Shogunate to shore up their defenses in those places.

Politics plays a crucial role in the creation of maps. On a local level, how territory and land was divided, and whose name it was attributed to was everything. These maps would visually represent power and control of the lords, daimyo, of the land. Such that those with the knowledge of land, had supreme knowledge over all. The Tokugawa Shogun knew this and called upon his subordinates to provide detailed maps of their provinces to him (Wigen, 6), consolidating his power and ushering in the age of “mapped society” in Japan.



My Map Qing China
Japan (日本) above “Great Qing” China (大清)

The most standout feature of the Bankoku Sōkaizu is the orientation of the map. Instead of the modern representation of North – East – South – West compass, Ishikawa Ryūsen opted to use a East – South – West – North version. While the map could be laid out on a table, and walked around, the original intended portrayal of the map is extremely long, and narrow. The map bears strong resemblance to the 1602 Matteo Ricci world map Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (坤輿萬國全圖) [A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World], with references to the “Land of the Giants” (長人嶋) in the south-east, and the “Land of the Dwarves” (小人嶋) in the north-west. While there is no clear answer as to why the orientation is the way it is, I believe that there could be political motivation for it. The first clue comes in the position of Japan, while it is not perfectly centered in the map, it is the most detailed central object. Japan has its own colouring and divided territories. Visually Japan is seen “above” Qing dynasty China, which challenged the Chinese notion of Japan as a lesser cultured entity; especially during the previous Ming dynasty when Japan was a tributary state to China (Kang, 59). This could encourage a more Japan-centric thought, and superiority in the east, which would not have occured on this map with any other type of orientation. The second clue comes in the art along the borders of the world, near the title of the map. With the two types of ships at the same level. The right ship is labeled a “Great Qing Ship” (大清船), while the left is unfortunately unreadable. However the representation of the ship looks similar to the Gozabune (御座船) issued by the third shogun of the Tokugawa government, Tokugawa Iemitsu. My interpretation of these two ships would be the equivalent level of seafaring technologies, advancements, and explorations of both China and Japan. Ishikawa Ryūsen further challenging the Chinese-centric focus of East Asia at that time.

A Gozabune travelling from Choshu, Ryūkyū, to Edo.



The Bankoku Sōkaizu offers an interpretation of the world and all of its countries, but during the period of closed country, sakoku, how would Ishikawa Ryūsen be able to map anything past Japan? Given the limited technology of the Tokugawa period, world travel also would have been exceptionally dangerous, therefore it was imperative that cartographers draw upon others’ works or personal accounts, likes travel diaries. Which leads to a limited interpretation of the world. We can see that Matteo Ricci’s map had a direct influence on Ishikawa Ryūsen’s Bankoku Sōkaizu, not only with the two islands of giants and dwarves, but also with the large landmass in the southern hemisphere. Ishikawa Ryūsen himself was a trained ukiyo-e painter, and usually produced maps as means of art and pleasure. While they gained popularity in the political sphere, pinpoint geographical accuracy was not his main objective with his maps. For an expansive look at both the types of maps and the style of maps Ryūsen was known for has been compiled by Saeko (2017).


With the advent of satellite technology, there is now an accurate idea of what Japan look like today. Comparing this modern representation to Ryūsen’s Japan, a few glaring differences become clear. Specifically with the island of Shikoku being almost entirely encompassed by other landmasses, as well as the size and overly east location of Hokkaido, or Ezo (蝦夷島) in 1708. By comparing Japan, we can see how liberal Ryūsen was with his boundaries, as it would be his most clear and researched entity of the entire map. We can conclude that his Bankoku Sōkaizu is not the most trustworthy representation of the world. However, we must remember the context in which he created his map and that for his time, this would be an extremely sophisticated and up to date version of the world, and where Japan sat within it. The inclusion of folktale islands like the giants and dwarves would only be from foreign documents. From the few Dutch traders who were trusted by the Tokugawa government. Of course these would be included, and they would definitely be thought of as real places as well, due to more and more maps propagating the ideas of them. Nobody could prove them false, as no one had ever been there except the Dutch, who said it is real.

My map_Night country
The “Night Countries” (夜国) on the northern boarder of the map


While this map may push a political agenda, that Japan is equal to, or greater than, China, one fascinating feature is the lack of iconic Japanese symbols. The most popular and recognizable at the time would be Mount Fuji, as it was could be seen clearly from both the traditional capital of Kyoto, and the political capital of Edo. It was also seen as a symbol of benevolence and beauty (Earhart, 2015). Ryūsen decided not to include the mountain in Japan, but at the same time added the great wall of China in the Qing territory. As well as the Qinshan mountain (秦山) in the Zhejiang province of China. The Night countries (夜国) in the north are an oddity as well. Due to their black colouring, they are completely featureless, one could assume that no one knows who or what the night countries look like, but that they exist further north than modern day Russia. Their label is separate from most others, because of the use of the simplified country (国) instead of the traditional (國). Perhaps those countries do not deserve the respect that comes along with the Chinese character writing system, or it might be another attempt to undermine pro Chinese tradition. Regardless of the reason, 国 was not included in the Qing Chinese dictionary at all, therefore it would be complete “gibberish” to any Chinese viewer. Which points to the maps target audience of traditionally educated, elite Japan lords, or even the Shogun himself.



Works Cited


Bragg, Melvyn, perf. Japan’s Sakoku Period. In Our Time. Rec. 4 Apr. 2013. BBC Radio 4, n.d. Web.


Earhart, H. Byron. “The Power of the Volcano: From Volcano to Sacred Mountain” In Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan. Univ of South Carolina Press, 2015.


Horstman, Georgia. “Bankoku sōkaizu.” University of British Columbia ASIA453 WordPress Tokugawa Maps. 2016. Web.


Ishikawa, Ryūsen. “Bankoku Sōkaizu.” University of British Columbia Tokugawa Maps Collection. Edo: Suhara Mohē, 1708. N. pag. Web.


Kang, David Chan-oong. East Asia before the West: Five centuries of trade and tribute. Columbia University Press, 2010. 59.


“Matteo Ricci, Li Zhizao, and Zhang Wentao: World Map of 1602.” University of Minnesota Libraries. University of Minnesota, n.d. Web.


Saeko. “Ryūsenzu: Maps Composed by an Author of Popular Literature.” University of British Columbia ASIA453 WordPress Tokugawa Maps. 2016. Web.


Wigen, Kären, Sugimoto Fumiko, and Cary Karacas, eds. Cartographic Japan: A History in Maps. University of Chicago Press, 2016. 6.

Anonymous Painter. ”Chūzan ō raichō zu.” National Archives of Japan. Edo: 1710.