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  • A Malleable Map: Geographies of Restoration in Central Japan, 1600–1912 by Kären Wigen
  • Tom Looser
A Malleable Map: Geographies of Restoration in Central Japan, 1600–1912. By Kären Wigen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 340 pp. $45.00 (cloth); $34.95 (paper and e-book).

As one follows through the cartographic history of the Japanese province of Shinano that forms the heart of this work, with its often beautifully evocative anecdotes, it is clear that it was written by a scholar with a real love, and talent, for local history—but at the same time, the book uses this focus on the local history of a single province to raise much larger and more comprehensive questions, both with regard to the history of Japan and regarding how we might think of the process of history itself. The book is organized by questions fairly strictly derived from geography, but like any good geography, it has strong political implications. At the very least (as if this wasn’t enough), it seems to be asking us to rethink the very idea, and composition, of the nation (as formed in Japan).

The principal claims of the book are located in a reading of the very eventful Meiji isshin of 1868. This is typically described as the birth moment of the Japanese nation; it is also, however, the time at which the Japanese emperor was brought to the new capital of Tokyo and given a newly significant role in the polity. It has therefore long been a subject of historical debate as to whether the meaning of isshin implied a revolution (the birth of a truly new polity—the nation) or a restoration (of an imperial state). Wigen’s argument is subtle, but by looking at the history of maps, and especially the persisting space of the kuni (what would eventually become the modern province, or ken), her conclusion seems to be that this was in fact a restoration of a spatiality that goes back as far as the seventh century.

One of the most striking elements of her argument is evident in her own vocabulary. Wigen consistently uses the term “nation” to refer to spatialities in Japan going back to the seventh century. She clearly has read her Benedict Anderson and is doubtless aware of the ideological risks of claiming for a transhistorical “nation” of Japanese culture, so this cannot be taken lightly. It is, furthermore, one logical translation of the term kuni, and so there is a real, historical continuation of the [End Page 977] term in Japanese to be dealt with, too. In my view, the book is thus asking us to think about a good deal more than just the meaning of “restoration.” At least implicitly, Wigen is tracing out the persistence of a category, or a form—and looking at the ways in which the past always has a continuation that must be “reckoned with.” She is arguing for a history in which even revolutionary moments must deal with the constraints of history, whether these constraints are linguistic (the category of kuni) or spatial (the material geographic orders that persist through time).

This does raise some interesting questions, not only as to what it might mean to say that there was a “nation” of Japan in the seventh century, but also as to how we should think of the persistence of a form like that (especially as indicated by a map) through extremely varied historical moments. Wigen’s analysis offers both rich detail for the changing practices within the province of Shinano and a comprehensive picture of major mapping genres (including the “all-Japan” maps; gazetteers, fudoki; regional digests, chishi; and even newspapers). She provides readings that might yield insight elsewhere as well; her description of a “river’s-eye view” mapping, which creates a subject position both looking from within a bordered area and somehow claiming comprehensiveness for that area, might be thought of as a new kind of perspectival order, somewhere between the homogeneity of a nation and the transcendent space of a divine ruler.

At times, though, it can be somewhat unclear just what is meant by the modern engagement with...


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