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

Background Information

Historical Significance

Assuming the dating on the map is accurate, this places the time of its creation in the center of the Japanese sakoku (鎖国), or isolationist, period, which lasted from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century and saw Japan functionally cut off from the rest of the world, save for arrangements with the Chinese and Dutch for trade in order to maintain healthy levels of imported materials and export gains. We see an account of what this “closed” period meant for the Japanese who lived in Nagasaki from Carl Peter Thunberg, a Swedish doctor who briefly served as the head surgeon at the artificially-created island of Dejima where he, like all visitors to Japan, was forced to remain for this entire stay. In his words:

Excerpt from <em>Travels in Europe, Africa, and Asia, made between the years 1770 and 1779</em>, vol. 4. London, 1795-96. 63.

Excerpt from Travels in Europe, Africa, and Asia, made between the years 1770 and 1779, vol. 4. London, 1795-96. 63.

"No Japanese is allowed to leave his native land and visit foreign countries; this being prohibited, under penalty of death. So that the long voyages which the people of this nation formerly undertook in their own vessels to Coræa, China, Java, Formosa, and other places, can be no longer performed, and the art of navigation must of course be upon the decline. This, however, does not prevent them from making short Voyages between the rocks, with an inconceivable number of trading vessels, of different sizes, as likewise with fishing-smacks. They seldom venture out far enough at sea to lose sight of land, and always take care to have it in their power to run every evening into some port, or else to some other place of safety, in case of sudden storms. Yet they are provided with a compass[...]"

Taking both these points into consideration, the map shows us a time of stability in Japanese foreign policy and commercial activity; no new edicts or declarations have shaken up life in Nagasaki as much as the closing had a hundred years before, and life on Dejima is (relatively speaking) similar to how it had been since that point as well. What, then, is particularly compelling about this piece, then, if it doesn’t capture a moment of turbulence with Japanese (or Nagasaki) society? We’ll explore that question in the next section, which discusses the map’s cartographic significance.