Figure 1: Tōkaidō meisho zue 1864 Source:

The Tōkaidō Meisho Zue (1864) is a map in twelve oban panels joined together to form a panoramic view of notable places along the Tōkaidō a highway, through the depiction of a procession along it. The intention of this map description is to critically analyze this map in order to answer the research questions: “Why are people depicted on the map and what do the representations of people and soldiers tell us about how the spatial utilization of the Tōkaidō route? And how does this relate to the politics and economy of early modern Japan?” This map description will offer this examination by moving through the individual parts of the map’s name in relation to the map itself, describing the people and importance of the people on the map, and ultimately concluding with the importance of the Tōkaidō map from a political economy point of view.

What is Tōkaidō?
Modern Tōkaidō highway
Figure 2: Modern Tōkaidō highway

Tōkaidō is the name of a Highway in Japan during the Edo period. One book offers that Tōkaidō was both a geographical, physical location and a metaphorical one in which it “was not simply a means of transportation, but carried a strong figurative capacity, embodying a multitude of ideologies and imaginings that shaped travellers, artists and spectators.” Thus, in answering the question as to how political economy is related to the people in this spatial place, the answer is that it was a highway in which ideologies and imaginings traveled through the people that used it, bringing political change, economic prosperity or despair, and so forth. In terms of the history of the highway itself, Traganou offers that the highway was “confined to foot travel” during the Edo period, but “was the most important route of the country,” in that, first as a highway and then as a railway that eventually encompassed and destroyed major parts of the highway beginning in 1889, “the Tōkaidō figured in the collective imagination as a space of play and release, while at the same time it was the locus of famous places…presented as a landscape of progress, modernity and westernization expressing the positive and negative connotations that such notions carried.” Thus, the Tōkaidō in this map, still a foot-traveled highway, represented the spatial location from which the introduction of more modern and complex ideologies would come into Japan during these periods, which helps explain why in the map the procession is so varied, vibrant and both politically and economically different from one panel to the next. The Tōkaidō is both a spatial and ideological location in this map.

What is Meisho Zue?

The Meisho Zue is the second part of the title of this map from 1864, and meisho zue according to Robert Goree is “popular multivolume geographic encyclopedias published in Japan during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” in which “pictorial maps” is a central theme. According to this source, meisho zue originate as pictures in these large volumes of histories and encyclopedias during Japan’s Edo and Meiji periods, but actually help represent maps in many ways. Using a meisho zue of a different volume, the author provides examples of how this is accomplished: “instrumental pictorial representation of landscape, virtual way finding capacity, spatial layout as a book, and biased selection of sites that contribute to a vision of prosperity. This last claim about site selection exposes the depiction of meisho as a means by which the editors of meisho zue recorded a version of cultural geography that normalized this vision of prosperity.” This latter sentence is of particular importance for the “Tōkaidō Meisho Zue” in that it demonstrates that as a map, it is both politically and economically influenced in order to promote the prosperity of the area and to make the meisho zue in which it is located more popular, thus promoting political acclaim and economic prosperity through its scale. The meisho zue then represents the volume and technique by which an illustration of a location turns into a map of the cultural, political, social and economic relations of that society/location at that time. It also suggests that the map itself may be lacking in detail politically and economically that would make the area of the Tōkaidō look less-than-perfect considering its purpose in a volume that denotes the glorious history of a geographical location.

Why people are on this map?
Figure 3: Alternate Attendance Source:
屏幕快照 2018-04-21 14.11.21
Figure 4: Soldiers departure from Nihonbashi
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Figure 5: Final stop is Kyoto

One of the reasons there are many people on the map of the “Tōkaidō Meisho Zue” is that this was part of the way in which the political and economic society was set up during the Edo period in Japan. This was known as “alternate attendance,” and is described by Constantine N. Vaporis as:

In Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868), the shogun in Edo required the semi autonomous daimyo to leave their domains to come wait on him for a year at a time. The daimyo, furthermore, were required to keep their wives and most of their children in permanent residence in Edo, where they served, in effect, as hostages, acting as guarantees for continued daimyo good behaviour… With foreign trade largely restricted by political fiat, alternate attendance functioned as a powerful economic stimulant: the very considerable expenses involved in participation in the system-including transport and travel services, the construction and repair of a network of compounds in Edo, and the maintenance of support staffs there-spread those expenditures along the highways, as well as in Edo and the domains.

While a bit lengthy, this passage gives an understanding of why the Tōkaidō was so important as a political and economic functioning highway, as well as why the meisho zue in which it is found would want to depict it in a positive light, as this “alternate attendance” was a political tool used to control a population, and would be looked upon in a negative light if not depicted in such a positive way. More than anything, however, it illustrates why there are people on the meisho zue of the Tokaido – they serve a propaganda purpose as well as a historical one in that they orient the direction of the map through the direction of travel and what groups are moving which ways, and that they promote the view of the highway as a crucially important central geographical landmark that meant so much to so many people during this time period in Japan. Going back to Traganou’s statement, it helps the map represent both the physical and the ideological importance of the highway, whereas it also helps it represent the political and economic importance of the concept of the “alternate attendance” and how the highway helped encourage that interaction.

Figure 6: Honjin (本陣) Honjin is the Japanese word for an inn for government officials, generally located in post stations during the later part of the Edo period. (political and economy sign)
Figure 7: Modern Honjin
The importance of Tōkaidō Meisho Zue

Thus, the importance of the Tōkaidō map is multi-faceted. It is important as a depiction of a historically, unbelievably important highway for Japan’s Edo and Meiji periods, both as a highway and as a railway eventually. Second, it is important as a depiction of both a physical place and an ideological gathering-ground for Japan during this period in terms of how ideas and ideologies flowed through and by it. It is also important from the perspective of the meisho zue in that it shows prosperity and political and economic importance of portraying that prosperity in an encyclopedia-like volume of work that encourages sales and political fame through this kind of positive depiction. And finally, it is important because of the people in it. Practices like “alternate attendance” and simply the large volume of travel of both physical and non-physical items throughout the highway of the Tōkaidō represent in large part the introduction of modernity to Japan through this “main artery” in the country. The purpose of the Tōkaidō Meisho Zue, therefore, is to portray not only a physical location, but to portray how that physical location had an importance to the history and particularly the political economy of Japan during the Edo period. The people in the map represent the ideology of the highway, whereas the highway itself represents the physical location the highway offered through which such ideology could travel.


This map description has attempted to illustrate the importance of the role of the Tōkaidō highway through a critical examination of the “Tōkaidō Meisho Zue,” which is a medium itself that has a strong history in Japan. It has looked at why the map in its different parts is socio-spatially important as well as why they are politically and economically designed to represent the highway and its extraordinary importance in the Japanese history.


Goree, Robert. “Meisho Zue and the Mapping of Prosperity in Late Tokugawa Japan.” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review. 23 (Jun. 2017).

Nenzi, Lauran Nenz Detto. Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan. University of Hawaii Press. (2008).

Traganou, Jilly. “Introduction.” The Tōkaidō Road: traveling and representation in Edo and Meiji Japan. (N. Date).

Vaporis, Constantine N. “To Edo and Back: Alternative Attendance and Japanese Culture in the Early Modern Period.” The Journal of Japanese Studies. 23.1 (Winter 1997).


Contributor: Shuang Song
Published April 21, 2018