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Reviewed by:
  • Cartographic Japan: A History in Maps ed. by Kären Wigen, Sugimoto Fumiko, and Cary Karacas
  • Todd Stradford
Cartographic Japan: A History in Maps. Edited by Kären Wigen, Sugimoto Fumiko, and Cary Karacas. University of Chicago Press, 2016. 336pages. Hardcover $45.00.

Cartographic Japan is, despite its subtitle, primarily a history of maps—their types, use, and construction in Japan from around 1600 to the present. As observed by novelist Reif Larsen, “a map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected” (The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet; New York: Penguin Press, 2009). In this sense, each map in this book is deeply linked to the time it was created and therefore tells something of the history of that time. The main topic of the accompanying essays, however, is the maps themselves. The volume thus has something to offer those interested in either Japanese history or cartography.

If you’ve ever wondered why Japanese cities have no street names, or why many modern tourist maps are cartoonish with no scale or positional accuracy, the book’s discussions of the roots of such phenomena should be of interest. Mary Elizabeth Berry’s chapter “What Is a Street” examines the social structure of self-organizing medieval blocks in an urban area, which made blocks more important to identify on a map than linear routes. “Picturing Maps,” by Henry D. Smith II, looks at the popularity of ukiyo-e artist Kuwagata Keisai’s picture maps of early-nineteenth-century historic sites, which distorted distance and direction to make the map more artistically appealing.

The core of each chapter in Cartographic Japan is an essay rather than a research article, making the book a relatively easy read. The volume is divided into four parts arranged chronologically, each with its own introduction. Parts 1 and 2 take up maps of the early to late Edo period; part 3, the use of modern survey methods in map creation in the Meiji, Taishō, and early Shōwa eras; and part 4, the accelerating use of maps by the Allied powers during and after the Pacific War and then by the Japanese themselves in the postwar period up through the disasters following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Each part contains twelve to fifteen chapters of three to four pages in length, each of which focuses on a particular map or type of map, providing insights from the perspective of, for example, history, historical geography, urban utilization, or social structure. Every chapter includes from one to four maps, all reproduced in full color. Each chapter is written by a single author or coauthor, and the book is to be commended for the deft translation and editorship that have rendered the work a cohesive whole with a remarkably consistent writing style throughout. A final section of the book contains a brief biography of each of the authors, whose credentials range from Kyoto University and the University of Tokyo in [End Page 119] Japan to Stanford University and Nebraska Wesleyan University in the United States, the University of Leeds in England, and the University of Hong Kong in China.

The book can be situated among a handful of volumes published over the past several decades. Cartographic Japan is similar to The Map Book, edited by Peter Barber (New York: Walker & Company, 2005), in being aimed at a general readership while still containing enough information to be useful to readers with a critical interest in history—whether that of maps or of the places they depict. And like that volume, the book under review contains references and suggestions for further reading at the end of most chapters. In terms of cartography, it bears a similarity to Isles of Gold: Antique Maps of Japan, by Hugh Cortazzi (New York: Weatherhill, 1983); Cartographic Traditions in East Asian Maps, edited by Richard A. Pegg (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014); and Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, volume 2, book 2 of The History of Cartography, edited by David Woodward & J. B. Harley (University of...


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