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A Buddhist Odyssey through Japan

A small gem of an exhibition that will leave you pondering your place in the world has less than a month to run. The Shogun's World: Japanese Maps of the 18th and 19th Centuries features the MacLean Collection, a private Illinois collection of 40,000 maps from Asia and beyond. In every map presented, Japan is the focus, but the perspective is always shifting. The exhibition showcases the devotional power of early charts of Japan, moves into more official government cartography efforts around 1800, and expands into even larger, colorful maps of sprawling civic centers. While imperial control through much of the Edo period (1615-1868) limited direct Western influence, the maps offer evocative visuals with some accidental parallels to other contemporary and ancient literary traditions.

One of the most unique maps in the exhibition is on a ceramic plate and dates from around 1830. It features the Japanese archipelago in the middle and includes the intriguing detail of the Island of Women seen in green at the bottom of the plate. The MacLean collection catalogue suggests this mythical locale conflated a Chinese literary tradition of an island with only female inhabitants with a "Buddhist geographic place" known as the Land of Demon Women. This was "a southern island occupied by seductive shape-shifting women cannibals who entice men into sex and then eat them alive." In the aftermath of Jonathan Swift's ever-popular Gulliver's Travels (1726), Western readers might not have been surprised at the literary flair of this particular part of the Eastern terra incognita. As a dramatic honey pot for unwary sailors, it also suggests an epic danger akin to the ancient Greek Odysseus's trials to return home after the Trojan War, where his bad luck brought him in turn to the shores of magical Circe and clingy Calypso's lair. 

Odysseus's hair-raising crossing in the strait between the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis also bears a fleeting visual analogy to the earliest item in the exhibition, a large woodcut wall map of the Buddhist world, centered on India, and dating from 1710.

The mesmerizing central whorl of flowing lines is not, however, a whirlpool that swallows ships whole, but rather the source of four sacred rivers at Mount Meru. The rivers Oxus, Indus, Tarim, and Ganges become living forces spiraling fourth from four animal heads across the rugged mountainous terrain. As noted in the label, it "is a map of the physical dimension, or earthly plane, of the Buddhist world." The woodcut was likely printed by a Buddhist monk in Kyoto, adding another layer of meaning via its hands-on production. Like many pilgrimage prints from the previous century and even earlier, this wall map offers a basis for meditation rather than wayfinding. Nevertheless, some new geographical information sneaked into the mix. Landmarks outside of the central Indian continent appear at reduced scale, such as the Americas, depicted as the islands to the south and east of Japan in the lower right.

The Shogun's World closes on November 6 in gallery 108A. For more about the MacLean Collection, see Richard A. Pegg, Cartographic Traditions in East Asian Maps, University of Hawai'i Press, 2014.

Image Credits:

Kutani Ware Map of Japan, 1830s, Japan, porcelain with enamel decoration, MacLean Collection.

Full image and detail, compiled by Hotan (Japanese, 1654-1738), Map of All the Countries of the Jambudvipa (Nanen bushu bankoku shoka no zu), 1710, woodblock print, MacLean Collection