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Nagasaki Harbor, 1741: Navigating the Many Dimensions of a Map

Background Information

Cartographic Significance

Though the map may not appear to add much to the corpus of knowledge about Nagasaki from this period, exploring its relation to other maps made around the same time (and by the Japanese, generally speaking, over a larger period of time) shows us how this piece contributes to various movements within cartography in early modern Japan. Consider, for example, this maps to the left, created in the 13th century. Here, coastlines and province borders have been simplified and generalized; we see little of the attention to detail that the Nagasaki map’s coastline grants us. Indeed, even the roads that link the provinces seem not to represent what existed in the real world but instead how provinces connected to each other without regard to topography or the placement of major towns and cities. The roads depicted don’t necessarily indicate the precise path from one location to another, but they do indicate that it was possible to get from one particular province to another through the use of (what we might imagine are) major routes. This map, then, was likely not used by coastal navigators or anyone interested in maritime activities. Its usefulness in showing the general layout of Japanese provinces and the road systems that connected them suggest a more diplomatic or administrative use, such as that of a daimyo.


The 1741 Nagasaki map is hardly the first to break from this tradition. Keeping with the theme of looking at maps that depict Japan as a whole, there are other examples of maps that pay close attention to the borders of provinces and exact coastlines from a similar period to our Nagasaki example, such as this 1700 map to the right. Notice, however, that none of the preceding examples have been of one detailed area; they have always been of the entire land of Japan. A map of this magnitude has obvious applications from an administrative point of view, as it allows rulers and other nobles to place the different provinces of the islands with relation to one another. What applications, then, does a map which features a detailed description of the coastline of Nagasaki have? The following articles seek to provide some insight to that question by highlighting what is (and, perhaps just as interestingly, what is not) depicted on the map, each providing clues to the many possible conclusions one could make.