Fantasies of the Real in Early Modern Japan

A review of Fantasies of the Real: Illustrated Gazetteers in Early Modern Japan, by Robert Dale Goree.

Robert Goree’s dissertation offers a comprehensive study of meisho zue, the illustrated guides to “famous places” (meisho) that arose in late eighteenth-century Japan and were published in great numbers well into the nineteenth century. These encyclopedic catalogs of culturally significant sites were disseminated to a wide, diverse readership and operated in tandem with early modern tourism, antiquarianism, cartography, literati culture, and an increasingly sophisticated publishing infrastructure to create what Goree terms “fantasies of the real ”— escapism rooted in actual cultural geography. Through a careful exploration of the literary and visual strategies employed in these texts, as well as the details of their publication and reception, the dissertation illuminates the significant role they played in the formation of the early modern Japanese imagination of history, geography, and culture.

The introductory first chapter highlights the meisho zue’s “ambiguity as a genre” (p. 10). The volumes combine images and text, including both poetry and prose description; they are not conventional gazetteers, but neither are they simply practical travel guides; they are in some sense encyclopedias of famous places, but they are also “much more than mere reference books” (p. 12). To illustrate the genre’s diversity, Goree observes the ways in which scholars from disparate fields have cherry-picked from this rich source for a variety of purposes. Art historians have analyzed the illustrations, their sources and influences, and their representational strategies. Scholars of literature have sifted through the many quotations from literature and classical verse. Meisho zue are also a rich repository of local customs and legends of great value to the study of folklore and cultural history. And their maps and catalogs of place names are, it almost goes without saying, invaluable for the study of historical geography.

Goree provides a synthesis of this fragmented earlier body of scholarship — a sort of “state of the field” of existing work on meisho zue. The genre’s value as documentary evidence for such a wide range of disciplines suggests one answer to the question posed in the very title of this first chapter: “Why meisho zue?” The dissertation fills a lacuna in providing the first comprehensive, cross-disciplinary study. Beyond this, Goree argues that the books are themselves “unique cultural objects with a distinct history of their own, which, if illuminated, could provide fresh insights into other cultural trends of the period […]” (p. 15). The introduction also positions the genre in relation to its textual and visual predecessors, giving the dissertation further context and motivation.

Chapter 2 builds a narrative of the economic, social, and cultural capital mustered in the compilation and publication of meisho zue. The impetus is Goree’s assertion, influenced by the work of book historian Robert Darnton and others, that a true understanding of books requires the exploration of the process of their production. The particularities of meisho zue’s compilation are seen to have endowed the books with characteristic structures and subject matter. In particular, the diversity of the human networks deployed resulted in a striking diversity of content, agendas, and organizational frameworks.

The third chapter looks at the other side of the equation: the readership for these works, both as imagined by their authors and editors and as revealed by the archival evidence. Goree observes that meisho zue were intended to provide those without the economic or social means to venture far from home, “women and children in particular,” with the experience of imaginary travel. Yet in comparing this imagined readership with the actual readership that emerges from the surviving record, it is found that readers of the guides in fact comprised a rather more diverse group, among them bureaucrats and samurai, artists and writers, and urban and rural commoners.

Chapter 4 centers around the use of perspective as an ordering principle not only for the illustrations but also for the prose commentaries and citations. Goree develops the concept of “indexed perspective” and argues for such indexicality as a characteristic that cuts across both the visual and the textual. Taking as his starting point the observation that human figures in meisho zue illustrations are often seen to gesture with their index fingers toward important visual elements in the scene at hand, thereby directing and controlling the viewer’s gaze, Goree goes on to consider the more elusive and artfully disguised ways in which the writers and illustrators themselves ordered the reader’s experience.

Take the example of Mount Fuji in Tōkaidō meisho zue (Illustrated Guide to Famous Sites on the Tōkaidō), a mountain of such fame that editorial decisions were unlikely to have been made without careful planning. Successive images constitute an index of the place’s literary and cultural associations. Each view provides a cross-section — a particular cultural, historical, or geographic stratum which is echoed in the accompanying description and verse. Layered together, these form a composite image of the site. Further nuance is added in the fifth and final chapter, which focuses specifically on the strategic use of verse (which is sprinkled liberally throughout meisho zue). Here Goree examines the targeted uses of poems composed by the authors themselves, and his analysis of such self-quotation opens up a final perspective on the genre’s editorial program.

Throughout his study, Robert Goree switches seamlessly between textual and visual modes of analysis, building a critical framework that either approach in isolation would not allow. In introducing a body of work that has, owing to the difficulty of satisfactory categorization and characterization, escaped sustained, synthetic exploration, the dissertation does a great service to the academic community. The reader emerges convinced of the meisho zue’s critical importance to a broader understanding of the literature, culture, and history of early modern Japan, above all for its construction of a world of imaginary travel that molded real perceptions of time, space, and community.

William Fleming
Assistant Professor
Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures
Yale University

Primary Sources

Meisho zue in various library collections, including the Waseda University Library, and in anthologies including Asakura Haruhiko, ed., Nihon meisho fūzoku zue (Kadokawa shoten, 1985).

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2010. 378 pp. Primary Advisor: Edward Kamens.


Image: Scene from Shūi Miyako meisho zue, Waseda University Library.

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