Map scholars dicuss Japanese cartography

Stanford professor Karen Wigen joined a Monday workshop on Japanese cartography.
Stanford professor Karen Wigen joined a Monday workshop on Japanese cartography. Photo by Benjamin Ackerman.

Scholars from Tokyo and across the United States gathered on campus Monday to probe the mysteries of Japanese cartography.

East Asian Studies experts met in Luce Hall at a workshop entitled “Mapping Japanese History: Space, Power, Representation,” which included a series of talks followed by a group discussion. The roughly 25 historians in attendance convened to discuss cartography’s influence on Japanese history, politics and culture and to generate new scholarship on Japanese mapmaking from the early modern age to the present.

“Interest in maps within the academy has never been higher,” said Cary Karacas, a cultural geographer at the College of Staten Island, who gave a presentation Monday. “We want to help form a bridge between ongoing academic research and the greater community, which includes people who are just intrinsically fascinated by maps.”

The workshop was this year’s installment of the annual conference jointly sponsored by the Yale Council on East Asian Studies and the Todai-Yale Initiative for Japanese Studies and Related Humanities and Social Sciences, a partnership between Yale and the University of Tokyo, also known as Todai.

Monday’s workshop topic sprang from a recent cartographic discovery at Yale, said Daniel Botsman, Japanese history professor and chair of the Council on East Asian Studies. Two years ago, Botsman said, Yale researchers discovered maps from “early modern Japan” whose importance they thought may have been overlooked in past scholarship.

“I wanted to hear from other experts about the maps’ authenticity, which put me in touch with University of Tokyo Professor Sugimoto Fumiko, who is the premier scholar of Japanese maps,” Botsman said. “We decided to make cartography the central theme of this year’s workshop, and she agreed to join us as a special lecturer.”

Though no undergraduate students attended, a number of graduate students and members of the New Haven community, in addition to other East Asian Studies professors at Yale, attended talks throughout the day.

“People came in and out, but there were a good 20 or 25 people at each talk,” said Michael Thornton ’10, a current history Ph.D. student at Harvard, who said he stayed all day. “I stayed for all the talks, which all concerned representations of mapping in Japan. It’s an up-and-coming field, as evidenced by the array of scholarship we’ve seen on it just today.”

Conducted entirely in Japanese, Sugimoto’s two lectures raised questions of spatiality and the influence of maps on Japenese law and governance, with the first talk focusing on the early modern period and the second on the present. In another talk, Ronald P. Toby, an East Asian Languages and Literatures professor at the University of Illinois, showed how the concept of the village that appears in local Japanese documents could conceal varying perspectives and “mental maps,” said Japanese history professor Fabian Drixler, who attended the event. In the last presentation of the day, Karacas and Stanford Professor Karen Wigen discussed their prospectus for a forthcoming book entitled, “Cartographic Japan: A Reader,” which will include scholarly papers by 50 cartography experts around the world.

Several attendees said they appreciated the chance to engage with fellow cartography scholars. Drixler described the workshop as a process of “sharing perspectives on the way a range of different types of maps were created, used, and understood in Japan,” thereby enhancing intellectual exchange.Botsman said he hopes the Todai-Yale Initiative, which launched in 2007 and is slated to be renewed for another five years, will broaden its focus beyond Japanese studies.

“The initiative is in flux,” he said. “The initial vision was to promote high-level intellectual exchange in a range of fields. Over time, we’ve seen it shift to just Japanese studies.”

The Council on East Asian Studies will continue to host talks through the coming fall, including a lecture next Friday by another scholar from the University of Tokyo on East Asian economic history.

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