The Imaginary Island of Kobitojima in Japanese Maps and Books of the Edo Period

by Quintana Heathman

As in many cultures, numerous imaginary countries appeared on the unexplored spaces of Japanese maps. Drawing from earlier traditions of “monstrous races,” places such as The Island of Little People and The Island of Giants appeared on Japanese maps of the world. Though foreign travel and interaction was heavily regulated, products and knowledge continued to flow into the “closed country” of Japan, and sophisticated urbanites of the late Edo period (1615–1868) turned to maps and books to understand the new international sphere.

During the Edo period, an explosion of inexpensive print culture developed a commoner audience hungry for knowledge. European and Chinese printed maps and encyclopedias were imported, translated, and reworked for the Japanese market, introducing both new geographies and a broader view of humanity. Printed maps in particular, available to a reading public newly confronted with an expanded international sphere, put a new view of the world at their fingertips.

This newly imagined world contained myriad different countries, and maps helped the Japanese audience literally locate themselves in relation to these strange new places and peoples. The maps included here illustrate different approaches mapmakers and their publishers took towards the inclusion of new knowledge. The countries mapped include both those familiar to modern readers, such as Holland or France, but also the fantastic and strange: The Island of Little People and The Land of Night. Derived from earlier Buddhist and East Asian traditions, these imaginary places were integrated into newly imported cartography, melding and molding new knowledge as the Japanese navigated an expanding worldview.

“Bankoku sōkaizu” 萬國総界圖 (Map of the Myriad Countries of the World)

“Bankoku sōkaizu” 萬國総界圖 (Map of the Myriad Countries of the World). Ishikawa Ryusen. 1708. Image courtesy of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, UC Berkeley.

Drawing from Matteo Ricci’s Chinese map Kunyu wanguo quantu (Universal Map of the World and Countries, 1602), this Japanese world map adapts new European cartography for the Edo public. Oriented with north on the left, Japan is given pride of place in the center of the map. Continents appear mostly as groupings of islands, the names of the individual counties mostly labeled in easy-to-read katakana script. Many of the popular fantastical lands of East Asian tradition appear, such as Rasetsukoku (an island of female cannibals), Chōninjima (Island of Giants), and Kobitojima (Island of Little People). The strange inhabitants of these fantastic lands figured heavily in the Japanese geographic imagination. Their homelands were not only located in printed maps, but also appear in printed encyclopedias and popular fiction of the eighteenth century.

“Nanzenbushū bankoku shōka no zu” 南瞻部州萬國掌菓之圖 (Picture of All the Myriad Countries of Jambudvīpa)

This eighteenth century printed map represents an attempt to reconcile traditional Buddhist cosmologies with the increasing knowledge of European cartography that was entering Japan. Created by the monk Hōtan (1654-1728), the map features the Buddhist world continent of Jambudvīpa in the center, with many European countries “scattered like millet” around the continent (a worldview keeping with Buddhist scripture). The map attempts to bring new and varied cartographic knowledge into line with Buddhist cosmological belief. Traditional Buddhist geographic features such as the legendary source of the four great rivers (the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej), represented by a spiral in the center of Jambudvīpa, are mapped alongside European countries (Itariya, Italy) and the homes of monstrous races (Kobitokoku, Country of Little People).

“Chikyū bankoku sankai yochi zenzu” 地球萬國山海輿地全圖 (A Map of All Countries of the World with its Mountains and Oceans)

“Chikyū bankoku sankai yochi zenzu” 地球萬國山海輿地全圖 (A Map of All Countries of the World with its Mountains and Oceans) Nagakubo Sekisui. c. 1850. Image courtesy of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, UC Berkeley.

Originally published c. 1780s, Nagakubo Sekisui’s map, like many others, was based off of Matteo Ricci’s Chinese map of 1602. As evidenced by this nineteenth century publication date, Sekisui’s map continued to be popular almost a century after its initial publication. Color-coded and filled with explanatory text, the map is packed with information, much of it written with furigana glosses to aid the reading of Chinese characters. The map blends fact and fantasy, again including strange countries such as Chōninkoku (The Country of Giants, now located in the continent of South America), Shōjinkoku (The Country of Little People, just above Europe), which is adjacent to Onikoku (Country of Demons). These strange countries and their inhabitants would persist in the geographic imagination even through the 1860s, as Japan began to open its ports to international visitors.