Japanese Nanban World Map Screens

A review of When Worlds Collide: Art, Cartography, and Japanese Nanban World Map Screens, by Joseph F. Loh.

This dissertation by Joseph F. Loh investigates nanban world map screens (nanban sekai chizu byōbu), folding screens that feature painted images of Western European maps of the world, produced during the 1540s–1640s when Japan encountered the West for the first time. As the dissertation title When Worlds Collide: Art, Cartography, and Japanese Nanban World Map Screens rightly suggests, the screens as eclectic works by Japanese artists can be interpreted as arenas where a wide range of cartographic forms and artistic expressions, as well as geographic knowledge and religious world views from both Japanese and Western sources, old and new, collided with each other. Yet, scholarship has long treated these map screens as a great case to show how Western science was introduced to Japan, and how the Japanese assimilated Western geographical knowledge and cartographic techniques. Pointing out that sufficient attention has not been paid to the screens as works of art, Loh approaches the screens as such, with a particular focus on how they were interpreted in the initial circulation. That means that, rather than Japanese scientific achievement and cartographic development, he intends to explore the subjective understandings and interpretations of the map screens whose original forms and information the Japanese artists appropriated and transformed, thus conveying meanings altered from or unintended by what the originals meant for Western viewers.

In his well-written dissertation, Loh conducts a careful and detail-oriented investigation of these collisions, identifying all the major parties and factors involved and giving consideration to how each one of them contributed to the contemporary Japanese interpretation of the map screens. For this purpose, he not only consults numerous screens and maps, but also relies on scholarly literature in art history, cartography, Japanese religious history, anthropology, postcolonial theory, mission history, cultural studies, and so on.

Loh’s dissertation comprises an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction provides the reader with an explanation of his research subject of nanban world map screens, and its historical background. The Portuguese and Spanish, or nanban-jin (southern barbarians) as the Japanese called them those days, came to Japan for intercontinental trade and Christian missionary work during the 1540s–1640s when the country was gradually shifting from civil war to political unification. Cultural exchange flourished between them, a result of which was the production of nanban art (nanban bijutsu) of both religious and secular-themed works, introduced by Western missionaries or executed by Japanese artists. Among the artworks, folding screens with the subject of the Arrival of the Southern Barbarians (Nanban-jin torai-zu byōbu) have gotten the most attention from Japanese art historians, while, more often than not, this dissertation’s topic of nanban world map screens has been perceived to lie within the purview of academic disciplines such as cartography, geography, and history of science. Yet, Loh examines the map screens as works of art, aiming to address the function of map screens as objects circulating in cultural or social spheres.

Chapter 1, Nanban World Map Screens, begins with a general description of the screens, their background and characteristics, reviewing what is known of their artists, patrons, and dates of production. Loh’s detailed survey reveals that there still exist twenty-two screens of this type, produced in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. “The screens range in size from 68 cm to 204 cm in height and 226.5 cm to 447 cm in width and were constructed in four-, six- to eight-panel folded formats. Eighteen of the world map screens have companion screens to form a pair. Fourteen of these companion screens consist of maps of Japan …” (p. 24). Rather than mechanical copies of these European maps, Loh argues that nanban map screens should be considered works of art which “exemplify how the Japanese artists reconciled with newly introduced pictorial imagery and knowledge concerning world geography and adapted it for works of art” (p. 32) by relying more on established Japanese painting conventions. As for the artists, a number of early map screens were most likely to be created “by Jesuit-trained artists or those in the Kano school, which inspired or ‘spawned’ later copies by different artists in locations in Kyushu, Kyoto, and other cities or port areas” (p. 35). Identifying wealthy and influential merchant families involved in maritime trade and shipping in Japanese port cities as primary patrons of nanban world map and Arrival screens, he concludes “because of their opulence, innovative subject matter, references to exotic and previously unknown places, peoples, and their ability to acknowledge the Japanese merchant’s growing self-recognition of their importance in regional and national economy and politics, such screens were likely extravagant objects displayed with great pride in their merchant households” (p. 46).

Chapter 2, “Approaching World Map Screens,” then provides a literature review of previous scholarship on these works of art and presents a methodological approach intended to facilitate new insight into the interpretation and function of the screens. Loh argues that, rather than cartographic artifacts, nanban screens should have been considered more as painted landscapes and intended as special made-to-order works of art. Moreover, pointing out that the screens have yet to be fully explored in the circumstances in which they initially circulated or through the eyes of the Japanese who first viewed them, Loh calls our attention to established modes and practices used for viewing and reading painted landscapes and other related genres. To approach to the screens from this viewpoint, Loh relies on Gauvin Bailey’s discussion on convergence and syncretism, two conditions that affect the interpretation of subject matter that is absorbed from one cultural context into another (Bailey, Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542–1773, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999). While convergence suggests the possibility of multiple interpretations at the sites of production, syncretism does the same at the sites of viewing-consumption. In the case of the map screens, the most explicit examples of intercultural convergence are artistic alterations made to heighten Japan’s prominence “by increasing the size of Japan in proportion to both Asia and the rest of the world, by rendering the Japanese archipelago in greater detail, or placing Japan in a more centralized position” (p. 78). Compared to the convergence, the effect of the conditions of syncretism and cognitive transformation is harder to discern. Yet, Loh assumes that, without the benefit of Jesuit explanations or European contextual filters in most cases, Japanese viewers of the map screens likely applied prevailing Japanese ideas and presumptions, or what he called interpretative filters, to engage with the map imagery in ways in which map and print makers in Europe could not ever have imagined (p. 79).

Chapter 3, “The Jesuit Enterprise and Nanban World Map Screens,” outlines the role that the missionaries played in introducing European art methods, Western knowledge, and map imagery to the Japanese. Following the history of the Jesuit enterprise, the chapter is to establish what was imported and made available for the intercultural convergence and syncretism. The seminary and art workshop provided Western art instruction and access to Western materials not only for their Japanese students but also for artists who worked outside the missionary community, such as those of the Kano school (p. 105). European maps and the cartographic ideas behind their designs were introduced through the media of printed maps and illustrations imported from Europe, the most significant of which must be Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, introduced in 1590. These Western maps served as a vehicle for conveying Christian cosmology as well as geographic information. What makes the investigation of Japanese interpretations so complicated, Loh argues, is the Jesuit policy of accommodation or “inculturation” to use a present-day theological term, which encouraged the convergence of various European subjects with Japanese artistic ideas, formats, and themes in the case of nanban art. The accommodation also allowed the Japanese perception of these nanban screens, severed from Jesuit or European discourses, to be shaped instead by the dominant Japanese worldview and value system in the seventeenth century.

In order to understand this contemporary worldview and value system, Chapter 4, “Gyōki-zu and Maps of the World,” investigates a distinctly Japanese form of map known as the Gyōki-zu, paired with an image of a European map of the world in sets of screens. An itinerant monk in the Nara period, Gyōki (ca. 688–749) was long credited with producing the first national map of Japan. The Gyōki-zu was significant, Loh argues, because it represented and embodied a premodern world view of Japan in symbolic terms, and its persistence well into the nineteenth century demonstrates the persuasive power of medieval Japanese religious thinking and vernacular histories. Furthermore, the map’s transformations over time can be interpreted as the visual and conceptual promotion of Japan’s position in the traditional Asian sphere, or sangoku (three countries) world view; Japan moved from the periphery to the center, with China and India relegated to the extremities in this Buddhist cosmological universe to combine Buddhist presuppositions and Shinto mythologies. Giving consideration to the persistence of the premodern religious world view, Loh argues “the convergence of the Gyōki-zu and an image of a European map on the folding screens and in painting techniques using Japanese materials unified the compositions and facilitated a syncretic interpretation that supported an understanding based directly on Japanese experience and derived from their contemporary views and values” (p. 164). In other words, “in the social and historical context of early seventeenth century Japan, Western cartographic forms and details found on nanban map screens were vulnerable to the imposition of established Japanese interpretative patterns and values” (p. 166).

Chapter 5, “Japan and the Centering of the World,” investigates how Japanese readings of the world map screens were affected by reversing the positions between the Western and Eastern Hemispheres, moving visual emphasis onto Asia, China, and Japan. This alteration was originally made by Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), a Jesuit missionary working in China who produced the earliest European maps for a Chinese audience. Centering China and Asia at the center, his maps can be interpreted as “Ricci’s concession to his Chinese readers and their traditional notions of China’s geographic and cultural supremacy” (p. 181). Nonetheless, his configuration never became influential in China. That was not the case, however, when Jesuits brought the 1602 version of Ricci’s map to Japan soon after its publication in China. For the Japanese viewers conditioned by the traditional world view, Loh argues, “the Western map reduced the relevancy of China and India while allowing for a repositioning of Japan in physical and conceptual terms” (pp. 192-193). A result was that “nanban world map screens based on the Ricci configuration provided a crucial pictorial instrument that could legitimize Tokugawa domestic policy and substantiate claims for Japanese global primacy, despite the Tokugawa shogunate having limited contact with people from other countries or lands” (p. 193).

In his conclusion, Loh states, “the variation of the nanban world map screen that featured the Pacific Ocean at the center of the composition stood then as a convenient and powerful visual platform for the Tokugawa regime that could reconcile existing Buddhist pictorial representations of the earthly or heavenly realm into a world view which they could call their own” (p. 205). Consequently, these map screens as objects of high art greatly contributed to establishment of the Tokugawa hegemony by legitimizing the Japan-centered world view as well as acknowledging the Japanese merchant’s importance for the establishment.

Loh’s well-researched dissertation convincingly argues that even maps which are often perceived to represent objective geographic reality are not free from the possibility of subjective interpretations. His sensitivity to these interpretations is most prominent in Chapter 5 in which he examines how differently Ricci’s map was received in China and Japan due to their respective world views and historical conditions. Here, his examination of Western, Japanese and Chinese materials, as well as Jesuit and Japanese religious histories gives excellent depth to his research, which successfully accounts for how multiple parties and factors, with various forces and intentions, collided with each other as visual representations of the map screens. The collision resulted in making Western European world maps, severed from Jesuit or European discourses, vulnerable to the imposition of the dominant Japanese worldview and value system in the seventeenth century. Moreover, while the world map screens with Japan in a centralized position helped to establish the new ideological order of the Tokugawa government, the image of Japan within the screens still fully retained the conceptual continuity with the medieval worldview. Thus, new ideas (re)presented by the map screens were neither understood as originally intended nor drove out old ones necessarily.

In sum, Loh successfully demonstrates the nuances and complexities of map screens as works of art, as well as the importance of detailed research of receptions and interpretations at the sites of both art production and consumption. He also provides thorough historical backgrounds of Japan and beyond its borders, which enable the reader to understand these works in their proper context. The dissertation will greatly contribute to not only the field of Japanese art history, but also to a larger body of scholarship that examines cultural exchange and the relationship between art, science, and religion more generally.

Keiko Suzuki
Kinugasa Research Organization
Ritsumeikan University

Primary Sources

Nanban art 南蛮美術
Nanban world map screens 南蛮世界地図屏風
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Kunyu wangguo quantu

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2013. 358 pp. Primary Advisor: Robert E. Harrist.


Image: Map of the World, 17th century. Eight-part folding screen, ink, color, and gold leaf on paper, 177.0 x 483.0 cm. Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo.

1 comment

Leave Comment
  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #47 | Whewell's Ghost

Leave a Reply