Sangoku Map Fullsize

Click here to view this item in the UBC maps collection.

Printed in 1816, this woodblock-print map shows the various domains of Japan, as well as three surrounding lands: Okinawa and the Ezo region (later known as Hokkaido), which were not yet considered part of Japan, and Korea. Representations are not all the same scale; this can be seen by the different-sized squares in the background of each region.

Compared to modern-day maps, the Japanese islands (Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu) are fairly accurate. This is largely credited to the Tokugawa government of the era commissioning several domain land surveys, starting in the 1600s. By the time this map was printed, four or five of these surveys had been compiled, giving mapmakers a lot of accurate data to work with (Yonemoto 2000, 647).

By contrast, the other regions shown are not very accurate to modern-day maps, as the mapmakers did not have the benefit of extensive Korean or Okinawan land survey data. Korea escapes without too much distortion, as Japanese ships were reasonably familiar with it. The depiction shows the northern border of Korea as a straight line running from east to west, which may be a simple space consideration. Okinawa is rendered as much blockier than it actually is, and many of the surrounding Ryukyu Islands are omitted (or suffer from similar scaling difficulties). The Ezo region bears very little resemblance to the outline of modern-day Hokkaido, which shows just how little the Japanese government of the time knew about the topography of the area.

Several major cities are marked on this map; the Japanese cities of Edo (the shogun’s capital), Kyoto (the imperial capital), and Osaka (a major trade hub) are all marked with circles with the city’s name inscribed in them, where the Korean capital of Seoul is marked with a red square (that appears to show the city gates as well). There is no capital marked for the other two territories.

Sangoku Map Detail EdoSangoku Map Detail Kyoto OsakaSangoku Map Detail Seoul

Unlike some of the other maps our class has studied, the purpose of this map is not entirely clear. It seems unlikely to be a domestic travel map or a map of domains, given that it devotes so much room to areas which are not part of Japan; however, by the same token the amount of detail given to Japan makes it unlikely to be an international traveller’s map (not that there were very many Japanese travelling internationally – more on that in a moment). The map also lacks distance or navigation information one would expect if it was being used to travel to places like Korea or Ryukyu.

In fact, one may question why Japan even produced a map of nearby countries during this period at all. Those versed in Japanese history may remember that during the Edo period (when this map was published), Japan supposedly closed itself off from foreign contact via its sakoku (or “closed country” policy. Traditional academic thought holds that under the sakoku policy, Japanese were not allowed to leave Japan (or return if they had already left), under punishment of death; trade with foreign countries was also greatly reduced, and limited to a select few ports. Most Western nations were banned altogether, with the sole exception being a small amount of Dutch traders allowed to operate out of a small, closely-watched island in Nagasaki harbor. If sakoku were really about closing Japan to contact with foreigners, the idea of a map showing these foreign places in such detail alongside Japan seems to be rather useless.

There has been some debate among scholars as to whether the sakoku policy really closed Japan to the extent that is often claimed. Some claim that sakoku did not really “close the country”, but rather that it mainly closed it to Christianity (Catholicism was seen as a disruptive influence, as its followers supposedly placed loyalty to God above any earthly ruler, barring the Pope). While there were trade and travel restrictions, these were perhaps not quite as onerous as believed previously, and were mainly intended to stabilize Japan following a long period of war, and help to consolidate the shogunate’s control.

The Edo period was immediately preceded by Japan’s famed “Warring States” period, where feudal lords fought for control of the country. During this period, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched an invasion of Korea, hoping to eventually militarily defeat China, the major power in the region. While Japanese forces were able to take most of Korea, they were not able to hold it for very long, and were forced to retreat. Hideyoshi died just before the end of this war, which hastened the retreat as well. Following this, Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, and succeeded in bringing most of the lords under his banner, beginning the Edo period (this is why it is also known to some as the “Tokugawa” period).

Even through the change in shoguns, the idea that Japan could rival China as the hegemon of East Asia remained. Having just come off of a failed attempt to assert this hegemony through military power, it likely became clear to Ieyasu and his descendants that a more diplomatic solution was necessary (especially so, considering that the shogun did not command nearly as much loyalty from the lords as he would have liked; many of Ieyasu’s policies, including the land survey projects and the well-known “alternate attendance” system were created for the express purpose of keeping the lords and their forces in line).

However, if Japan had designs on claiming the title of dominant power in the region, it would have to deal with other countries at some point. Some trade is clearly necessary, but it had to occur on Japan’s terms, lest foreign influence take over and steal Japan’s new title away. China has historically dominated trade in the area, meaning that in order to have a legitimate claim at the title of “dominant Asian power” Japan must also engage in foreign trade to legitimize its position (Walker 1996, 171).

Actual foreign relations during this time are rather complex. China was not very impressed by Japan’s attempts at claiming dominance (militarily or otherwise), so relations were strained, to say the least. The two rarely if ever communicated directly. It’s likely for this reason that China does not appear on the Dai Nihon setsujō sangoku no zenzu (lit. A Map of Three Lands Surrounding Japan), though space considerations may also have played a part.

Looking at the three non-Japanese countries shown on the Dai Nihon setsujō sangoku no zenzu, Korea was still very wary of Japan’s intentions following the war. However, one of Ieyasu’s first actions upon succeeding Hideyoshi was to order a full retreat from Korea, quickly followed by an attempt to normalize relations. He frequently claimed he had nothing to do with the invasion, his forces being posted in Japan at the time, which seems to have been mostly accepted by the Korean government. Trade missions were eventually resumed, and something approaching normalcy returned. Korea was actually probably one of the nations with which Japan had the best diplomatic relations during the period.

Ryukyuan-Japanese relations were reasonably cordial, at least compared to Sino-Japanese ones. At the time of the Dai Nihon setsujō sangoku no zenzu’s printing, Ryukyu had been under Japanese influence for slightly over two hundred years, having been attacked by the Satsuma domain in the year 1609 (Franks 2009, 12). Though supposedly independent, it found itself caught between two powers; it maintained relations with China as an official Chinese tributary state, whereas with the influence of Satsuma it was treated by Japan as though it were a Japanese vassal state. Because of its relations with both China and Japan, it was often used as an intermediary between the two, rather than both meeting each other face-to-face.

The Ezo region is notable in that it is the one country on this map that is not really considered a country by most powers in the area. The Ainu people have historically lived in this area, but because the Ainu culture did not derive from Chinese culture in any way, the Ainu were seen as an uncivilized barbarian tribe by most of the nations in the area (Franks 2009, 5-6). Western nations similarly saw them as uncivilized for failing to live up to Western social norms, meaning that they had no real allies. Walker notes that during the Edo period, the government of Japan did indeed trade with the Ainu, favoring goods like rice and sake. He also draws parallels between similar trading done in the Americas between the British and some American native groups, where the British tried to create an economic dependency on their goods, allowing the natives to be more easily controlled (Walker 1996, 170). Japan clearly had designs on the Ezo region, which boosts the credibility of this theory.

Looking at the map in relation to these contexts, a new possibility arises for its function: an attempt at legitimization of Japan’s claims to centrality in the region. This explains most aspects, including the detail shown to both Japan and its neighbours, and the exclusion of China (as there was no reason to add Japan’s rival for the position). At the moment, I believe this is the best option for why this map appears the way it does.


Works Cited

Franks, Luke A. The last prefecture: Okinawa and the problem of governance in Imperial Japan. University of California, Berkeley, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing (2009).

Walker, Brett L. “Reappraising the “Sakoku” Paradigm: the Ezo Trade and the Extension of Tokugawa Political Space into Hokkaido”. Journal of Asian History, Vol. 30, no. 2 (1996). pp. 169-192.

Yonemoto, Marcia. “The ‘Spatial Vernacular’ in Tokugawa Maps”. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 59, no. 3 (August 2000). pp 647-666.


Contributor: Alexander Hogg

(Edited by Elle Marsh)