Fig 1. Bankoku no zue, courtesy of UBC Rare Books and Special Collections


Bankoku no zue, is a map attributed to Yoshiharu Koyano and was made in the late Edo period, in the year 1800. The word “bankoku” means “all nations” or “myriad lands”,[1] with “map of all nations” being an alternate title to this work. Bankoku no zue is a fascinating example of a map primarily due to its little regard and adherence to the world’s geography.The general shape of Eurasia and the African continent can be made out, however, the representation of the Americas is arbitrary at best and exist in a form similar to the string of islands south of Alaska. This map is part of a lineage of maps in the Japanese world map tradition, and bears direct influence of bankoku ichiranzu.[2]

According to the UBC library where this map is currently kept, bankoku ichiranzu was intended for use by pupils in a private school.[3] Despite the ichiranzu being more geographically accurate, or rather, bearing more resemblance to geography, its use in private schools suggests an educational purpose. The detailing in the world in terms of  “sangoku” (three realms of Japan); “shintan” (mainland that included China and Korea) and “tenjiku” (India) is given considerable thought.[4] This map reflects more of a pre-sixteenth century Japanese conception of the world around them.[5] Following Toby, we can understand this map as being in line with Buddhist cosmology, where cartography favoured tenjiku centred maps. Due to the map’s educational context, we can assume that the audience was less concerned with accurate geographic representation and sought an abstract representation of the world loosely based on Buddhist cosmology-derived cartography.

Fig 2. Bankoku ichiranzu, courtesy of UBC Rare Books and Special Collections

In bankoku no zue, there exists a clear stylistic evolution, that now posits the sangoku or Japan in the centre. The previous attention to detailing is cast aside in favour of an abstract depiction of the world all around. Quizzically, there exist two red seas, one in the middle east and the other, labelled “east red sea” between north and south America. Noting this, we are posed to ask the following question:

  • How does this map help us understand the Japanese imagination of the world around them?

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities paved the way for much of today’s studies on conceptions of nation-hood and the idea of the nation-state. He holds that national identity is imagined and that the its members are tied together through a shared imagination of what it means to be part of the nation-state. In late-Edo Japan, we can surmise that the “nation” of Japan, was constructed as in engagement with “imagined communities” of Others.[6] Japan during this period was under a period of isolation from the outside world. While this isolation does not necessarily mean that there was no contact at all between the Japanese people and the outside world, it does imply that such contact likely occurred under special circumstances, such as trade.

In the map, Japan is pictured centred and positioned relatively north when compared to the Eurasian continent. Considering the positioning of Japan in geography, we can attest that it is quite isolated from the rest of the Eurasian continent. With the exception of the immediate east and southeast of Japan, there are no other landmasses and populations. However, in bankoku no zue, the viewer is given the impression that Japan is the centre of the world, or at the very least is connected and close to much of the rest of the world.

Toby suggests that the Japanese self was constructed very much in relation to their imagination of the Other(s).[7] This construction of Japanese-ness based on the imagined otherness of those around them may have to do with the relative non-existence of foreign travellers (bar those from China or Korea) till the encroachment of the Europeans. This encounter resulted in the displacement of sangoku cartography into one of bankoku. Thus, in order to construct nationhood in the context of sakoku come the seventeenth century, the Japanese relied as much on European constructions of the world and of their own imaginations. It may be so that bankoku no zue is an attempt at rationalizing a combined vision of bankoku cartography in the style of sangoku.

This map was conceived of at a time when Japan’s isolationist policy or sakoku was waning. Though the end of this policy would not be for another sixty or so years, the public was altogether aware of the true geographic reality of the world around them. By the nineteenth century, Ricci derived maps of the world has had plenty of time to spread and permeate through much of Japan. If this map was attributed to the beginning of the sakoku period, then it could be argued that it functioned as a construction of reality for the Japanese of the world around them. Since the map’s timestamp is from the early nineteenth century, we can surmise that this particular representation had more to do with style and/or propaganda.

Judging from the representation of the Americas, we can assert that the map was purely stylistic, and that there is no particular reason for the fashioning of world in such a manner. That said, the central positioning of Japan lends itself to the idea that, quite contrary to sokaku, the map is being used to further the connection to the rest of the world that geographic reality does not allow. In a roundabout manner, this map furthers the notion that Japan was indeed isolated, both geographically and as a matter of policy. In order, for the bankoku no zue to have an audience as a legitimate cartographic creation, the audience must be blind, either by choice or not, to geographic reality. Despite its abstractness, the bankoku no zue is an attempt at rationalist categorization, one that very likely is a product of fusion between sangoku and bankoku cosmologies.


[1] Alison R. Parman, “A World in Print; Foreigners in Japan’s Early Modern Bankoku Jinbutsu-Zu” (University of Oregon, 2016), iv.

[2] Yoshiharu Koyano, “Bankoku Ichiranzu” (place of publication unknown: publisher not identified, 1809),

[3] Koyano.

[4] Ronald P. Toby, “Three Realms/Myriad Countries: An ‘Ethnography’ of Other and the Re-Bounding of Japan, 1550-1750,” in Constructing Nationhood in Modern East Asia, ed. Poshek Chow, Kai-wing; Doak, Kevin Michael; Fu (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 18.

[5] Toby, 18.

[6] Toby, 16.

[7] Toby, 38.


Contributor: Chandima Silva
Published April 22, 2018