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  • Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period
  • E. Taylor Atkins
Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period. By Mary Elizabeth Berry (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006) 342 pp. $44.95

The prolific print culture of early modern Japan has been the object of repeated scrutiny from historians and aesthetes, but Berry's virtuosic investigation (based primarily on the rich Mitsui Bunko Collection of published maps and illustrated books) recasts these materials as a "library of public information" that both reflected and nurtured a burgeoning national consciousness among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japanese. Recent scholarship in modern Japanese history, intent to discredit essentialist notions of a timeless national cultural identity, has depicted "Japaneseness" itself as a modern "invented tradition," dating back to the late nineteenth-century Meiji project of nation-building. Berry provides a cautionary corrective—if not an outright refutation—of this view, arguing that the prodigious "information texts" available during the Edo period (1600–1868) indicate a "quiet revolution" in spatial and social imagination, linking people across status and geographical boundaries with a shared "cultural literacy" and a "common social lexicon." "The profound change across the Meiji divide seems . . . to have been enabled by a prior public consciousness that had already overridden the status order with presumptions of a collective stake in Nihon [Japan]" (251).

A model of clarity, wit, and readability, Berry's book is also exemplary for its masterly readings of a wide variety of materials. The longest and most methodologically inventive chapter, "Maps are Strange," describes a shift in "spatial ideology" and "cartographic imagination" that occurred in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The widely shared experience of disorientation and reorientation, resulting from a century of civil war, the breakdown of medieval patterns of land stewardship, mandatory cadastral surveys, and the 1590s' invasions of Korea, inspired new ways "to think generically about the space of the nation" and to depict this new spatial ideology via maps that both revived and revised ancient imperial visions of Nihon (60–61, 98). Berry deftly traces changes in spatial imagination through interrogation of the "iconic codes" that eventually became commonplace cartographical conventions. [End Page 338]

Other chapters address the "recalculation of identity" in this status-oriented society through travel compendia, Military Mirrors (rosters of samurai households), and urban ethnographies (136). In this information society, "cultural literacy" facilitated a sense of "social entanglement," binding strangers together in a "collectivity of knowledge" (195, 246–247). Avoiding the facile term "proto-nation," Berry instead characterizes early modern Japan as "a nation without nationalism" (212, 248), in which the relationship between ruler and ruled was relatively remote and historically contingent (230–240).

With the exception of brief comparative remarks on contemporaneous European cartography (57), Berry refrains from drawing parallels with the rise of empirical science and taxonomical epistemologies occurring simultaneously in Europe (a curious omission, since her book is part of a series entitled "Asia: Local Studies/Global Themes"). Historians of the early modern world, however, ought not to overlook Japan in Print. They will find it instructive on a number of themes: the rise of cities, market economies, and popular media; social and geographical imaginations; and the antecedents of the modern nation-state. They will also witness a truly gifted historical imagination at work.

E. Taylor Atkins
Northern Illinois University


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pp. 338-339
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