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Fine, Influential Map of Japan Drawn from Firsthand Knowledge

Striking example of one of the most important European maps of Japan of the eighteenth century.

Drawn from Engelbert Kaempfer's manuscripts compiled during his two years residence on Deshima between 1690 and 1692, it is from his History of Japan, the first comprehensive study on Japan published in Europe. 

The map shows Japan divided into 68 provinces, with each’s name given in Roman and Japanese characters. The Japanese characters are quite accurately reproduced, a testament to Kaempfer’s research and annotation skills. This is one of the first maps published in Europe to include Japanese names and characters.

Japan appears more horizontally-oriented than it actually is; this was a typical depiction of the archipelago for the time. In the upper right corner is a portion of Jesogasima, or Jesso, a representation of Hokkaido, which remained quite mysterious at this time. Some maps show it as a small island, while others show it as a near-continent sized landmass that, together with other chimeras like Compagnies Land and Staten Land, practically covered the North Pacific.

Kaempfer and his translator, J. G. Scheuchzer, were both interested in the region containing Jesso and Kamchatka, in the far north. Two insets in the upper left corner of the map show the region in more detail. To the left is a close-up of the Kamchatka Peninsula, as mapped by the Russians. To the right is the south of Jesso, with political divisions and municipalities marked.

The map also offers a primer on Japanese culture. A table explains Japanese numbers and units of measurements, while a diagram at the left shows types of prayer beads. At top is a Japanese maritime compass (with twelve directions) with a distance table. Around the cartouche is a Japanese god of fortune and (at right) one of the sea and one of riches.  

Kaempfer, Japan, and The History of Japan

The map includes a dedication to Sir Hans Sloane, the prominent collector, physician, and Fellow of the Royal Society of London.  The choice of dedicatee is tied up in the publication history of the work in which this map featured.

Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) was a German physician who traveled widely in Asia for over a decade. First, in 1683, he was attached as secretary to a Swedish delegation heading to Isfahan. They left Stockholm and traveled to the Baltic Sea and then overland to Moscow. Then, via waterways they wended their way to Astrachan via the Moskwa, Oka, and Volga Rivers. They crossed the Caspian to Niasbad and then continued on land to Isfahan.

Rather than return to Sweden, Kaempfer joined the Dutch East India Company as a surgeon. He traveled widely in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean as a result. After a stay in Batavia, he was assigned to the VOC factory at Deshima, in Nagasaki, the only port open to Europeans. There he stayed for two years, visiting Edo and the Shogun twice.

Throughout his journeys, Kaempfer made a series of manuscript maps and took extensive notes. However, he only published one book, Amoenitatum exoticarum (Lemgo 1712), which discusses Japanese botany. His entire collection of notes and maps were bought by the collector Hans Sloane. It fell to his librarian, Johann Gaspar Scheuchzer (1702-1729) to catalog and translate the works. It was therefore Scheuchzer who edited and published Kempfer’s History of Japan, which included this map and is dedicated to his boss, Sloane.

The History of Japan introduced many European readers to Japan. His maps of Japan became a standard reference for mapmakers and influenced many later representations of the islands.

Margarete Lazar, "The Manuscript Maps of Engelbert Kaempger" Imago Mundi 34 (1982): 66-71. KAP