Contextualizing Bankoku Sōzu

Japan saw Ming style policy as the most immediate reference for government and policy. At this time, the Ming government was weakening, and Manchus coming into power would eventually establish the Qing. Tokugawa Ieyasu sought to re-establish East Asian order, with Japan as the centre. Here are some Ming ideas that were adopted by Tokugawa Japan:

With land as an analogue for culture and civilization, these qualities decreased with distance from the political and/or cultural centre. China was seen as the central flower of civilization surrounded by barbarians in all directions. Nanban was used to describe Indo-Chinese kingdoms like Hanoi and Tonkin, but was co-opted by Japan to describe the Portuguese, along with many other aspects of this sinocentric, Confucian model.

Kaikin, or maritime prohibitions, were adopted from the Ming. Though Japan was a maritime culture, Japanese sailors often sailed in coastal waters as the open oceans were dangerous. Japan lacked an emergent navigational tradition, and adopted notions of pre-established Chinese sea routes. Many sailors were blown off course because of currents, winds, and typhoons, towards SouthEast Asia and the open Pacific. This led to many disappearances of sailors, until Europeans were often in the Pacific in the 1700’s. There was a general sense of awe towards the uncertainty of the sea, and those who were lost saw themselves at the mercy of the gods. Therefore, kaikin may have served as a protective policy.

Japan wished to adopt sakuho kankei, or a tributary relations system like that of the Ming. However, Japan only had diplomatic relations with Korea, which was seen as an equal nation, and Ryukyu, which was simultaneously owned by China and Japan. Chinese trade was considered smuggling by Ming government, and private relations were held with Dutch, who were mostly unfamiliar with this system.

The formal trade agreements with Ryukyu and Korea strengthened the Bakufu’s legitimacy. At this time, Japan was a keizai shakai, or economic society, and various resources were imported through trade, like textile, raw silk, silk products, sugar, and medicine. This trade was a source of revenue for rulers, channel of supply of luxury consumer goods, and raw materials for handicraft.

Sakoku was never really a coherent, national policy. There were regulations and a series of policies made, but they were only meant to make Japan, a recently unified nation, more like Ming China. In general, there is evidence to suggest that Japanese interests in the world were on the rise, as Japan became further globalized from the end of the end of the Sengoku Period through the Tokugawa Era.

For example, Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu were all given maps, atlases, globes, etc., and both Ieyasu and Hideyoshi sought political gain with this newfound knowledge. Hideyoshi received an atlas in 1590, and after shortly invaded Korea and sent delegates to Taiwan and the Philippines. Ieyasu sought diplomatic relations with Korea for the sake of trade, and also wished to establish relations with “New Spain” (Mexico). It was Iemitsu whose policies further closed Japan, but the foundation of the Edo Period is one looking outward.

The Dutch were likely wanted in Japan for their knowledge of the world. Unlike Christianity, which posed a threat to the Bakufu, rangaku was seen as its own school of thought, and captivated a lot of interest, particularly amongst intellectuals. Some even saw rangaku as a natural continuation of Confucianism, which championed investigation. They needed to make mandatory reports called Fusetsugaki that were about the outside world. Japanese officials created their own sources to verify the Dutch accounts.

Nagasaki became an international city as a result, and the centre of intellectual discourse surrounding rangaku. To study abroad in Nagasaki was an exciting intellectual opportunity, and many works from this location were recopied to be distributed throughout Japan. While it is true that the west was feared by some, one cannot deny the general awe and interest it generated amongst many Japanese. Many wished to know about the culture and customs of various peoples around the world, and were fascinated by the notion of climatic zones.

Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci was an Italian Jesuit Priest who exposed the Chinese to European (and global) geography. European and Chinese cartography remained as separate schools of craft, with Chinese incorporating a sinocentric view. Matteo Ricci’s map had China in the centre, to make it easier to understand. In turn, he co-opted the sinocentric view with a global worldview of European origin. Chinese cartography did not change, but this map at some point reached Japan, and influenced maps of the world in Japan for two centuries, including Bankoku sozu (click here to see an image of this in the UBC maps collection). This map co-opted a sinocentric model by bisecting the Atlantic Ocean, leaving Europe in the periphery, and East Asia in the centre (visibly speaking Japan more than China).

Composite Cosmology

Many were impressed (including Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi) by or doubted the notion of a spherical world, a global ocean, or the fact that the world could be circumvented. Though many saw rangaku as empirical or based on reason and facts, with kaikin in place, Japanese people could not test these models. As a result, some saw rangaku cosmologies as equally valid as Chinese ones. Japan’s knowledge of western geography was derived from various sources, including Confucian and Buddhist cosmologies, local legends, accurate maps, and erroneous reports. For this reason, there are non-existent continents, like Magellanica, and fantastical peoples like the dwarf and giant cultures.

The Small Eastern Ocean as a regional ocean basin, and its division from the Large Eastern Ocean (most of the Pacific) establishes a contained North East Asian network. Most of the Pacific was hardly explored at this point, and little was known about the “New World”. In this way, Japan applies a Confucian a geo-centric, middle kingdom consciousness and places it amongst other phenomenon in the world.


Though this came after the map, Nishikawa Joken characterized cultures using relational principles from Confucianism. He divided foreigners into groups like outside countries (Chinese derived) and outside foreigners. The latter was an elastic category, consisting of many distant cultures, all treated as foreigners in oceanic void. This can be seen in the map, as the culture’s portrayed seem less geographically or culturally organized as you leave Asia.

The fantastic peoples also come in at these margins, alongside cultures distant from Japan. Tokugawa Era documents made little distinction between fantastical peoples and those who made contact with Japan but were outside of the Confucian sphere of influence. The ocean was something that was uncertain and ominous, as well as fantastic. The use of fantastical and legendary features on cartographic documents is an example of recasting familiar elements of the popular imagination of the era unto a chaotic and uncategorizable ocean.


Contributor: Conor McCann

(Edited by Elle Marsh)