Vernacular Mapping: Early Modern Imaginaries of Lake Biwa in A Computational Perspective

by Ewa Machotka


Maps are generally thought to graphically represent space and spatial relations even if this representation is not necessarily based on the Euclidean cartography. Although the field is pervaded by multiple concepts this understanding underlines even the most inclusive definitions of a map. And map in this context refers to diverse materials including landscape images, architectural plans or sacred mandalas. However, is representational function conditio sine qua non of such a map across different chronological and geographical scales? Japanese early modern mapping practices, which resulted in production of rich imaginaries of space, such as the images of the surroundings of Lake Biwa produced in the 1830s, invite reconsideration of the representational paradigm.

Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. Located at the nexus of transportation, agriculture, trade and pilgrimage routes in close proximity to Kyoto, the site acquired strategic historical importance. It is no surprise that in the early modern period Lake Biwa become the subject of official cartographic projects initiated by the shogunate such as kuniezu (provincial maps); as well as the iconic poetic trope of Ōmi hakkei (The Eight Views of Ōmi) featuring meisho or famous places located around the lake, which informed the rich printed culture (Kamens, 2017). These spatial imaginaries commonly emphasizing the harmonious relationships between humans and the physical environment flourished especially during the 1830s, at the peak of the Tenpō Crisis, which brought starvation, epidemics, violence and death. Ōmi Province was heavily affected by the disaster but maps and prints show no sign of these environmental, social or political crises. Instead, they feature curated visions of reality based on heterogeneous imaginaries of places at times only loosely connected to their actual topographies. This suggests that rather than passive representations of reality, early modern mapping of Lake Biwa performed other non-representational functions. It is highly probable that these imaginaries functioned as icons (defined by Hans Belting as “image as presence”, 1993) which through their magical efficacy were able to regulate environmental crisis and reduce the probability of damage.

Hence, what brings Japanese early modern mapping practices together is not the reliance on ontological certitude related to their function as fixed representations of a static reality but their performativity. These processes unfold through performative encounters with a range of different actors serving multiple purposes and generating diverse visions of reality depending on the current situation, necessity, and audience, which resemble contemporary vernacular mapping with its affective responses to space.


Ōmi kuniezu (Map of Ōmi Province)

This large map (432 cm x 279 cm) is a component of Tenpō kuniezu or “Provincial Maps of the Tenpō Era”, produced between 1835 and 1838. It is the result of the last large mapping project initiated by the shogunate in the early modern period. In a complex visual and textual code system these maps provided detailed administrative information on topography, communication systems, administrative units and their management, and demographic and economic situations. However, their large sizes indicate symbolic rather than practical use. Kuniezu builds on the ancient practice of kunimi or ritual viewing/surveying of land performed by emperors and featured in courtly poetry, a way to claim authority over the realm. Kären Wigen (2016) points out that during the Tenpō era more accurate maps were available to the shogunate as were other sources of geographical and administrative information. Wigen concludes that kuniezu maps functioned as a political ritual, a symbolic instrument of centralized control performed by the shogunate.

Interestingly, all earlier shogunal land surveys were conducted in the seventeenth century, the last one between 1696 and 1702. A sudden return to the practice suggests that the government had a particular reason for this figurative intervention. The date indicates that the mapping process may have been motivated by the Tenpō Crisis and served as an instrument of social and political renewal aimed at regulating relationships between humans and nature, for which the shogunate had responsibility. In this context the representational quality of kuniezu maps may not be as relevant as its ritual/magical significance.


Seta sekishō (Sunset Glow at Seta)

Seta sekishō (Sunset Glow at Seta) from the print series Ōmi hakkei no uchi (The Eight Views of Ōmi). Utagawa Hiroshige. 1834-35. Image courtesy of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This woodblock print was designed by Utagawa Hiroshige ca. 1834-35 and appeared within the woodblock print series Ōmi hakkei no uchi (The Eight Views of Ōmi). The inscription in the square cartouche in the upper left corner features the poem: Tsuyu shigure/ moru yama tōku/ sugikitsutsu/ yūhi no wataru/ Seta no nagahashi”, which has been translated as “The long bridge at Seta, over which crosses the setting sun, passing far beyond the mountains, dripping with autumn dew” (Bruschke-Johnston Lee, 2004). The image presents a view of the famous Seta Bridge, which connects the two banks of the Seta River in the southeast part of Lake Biwa. A tranquil landscape view features the lake with a few sailing boats and Mt. Mikami in the background. Although Mt. Mikami is not very high at only 432 m., it has served as a prominent literary topos. Its cultural significance is demonstrated by its imposing presence in the view, which challenges the representational quality of the image. Its form and proportions have been modified to liken it to the venerated Mt. Fuji, which is some 350 km away. These conceptual connections resulted in Mt. Mikami’s alternative name Ōmi Fuji or “Fuji of Ōmi Province”.


Seta sekishō (Sunset Glow at Seta)

Seta sekishō (Sunset Glow at Seta) from the print series Ōmi hakkei no uchi (The Eight Views of Ōmi). Utagawa Hiroshige. 1835. Image courtesy of the British Museum.

A different understanding of space and spatial relationships is presented in another print featuring the same motive. A small uchiwa-e or fan-shaped image was also designed around 1835 by Utagawa Hiroshige. The view is depicted from the opposite direction, from the right bank to the left bank of the Seta River. Curiously Mt. Mikami is located in the center of the image on the horizon. The position and shape of Mt. Mikami are not the same as in the previous print, and neither corresponds with its topographical characteristics.

Both images curate reality on at least one more level. Despite being produced at the peak of the Tenpō Crisis, which heavily affected the province, they show an idyllic view of the countryside with no sign of natural, social or political disturbance.